May 8: A little bit of trim

In this week’s episode based around recurring themes “eh, we’re not quite ready to do that yet” and also “chicken and egg,” we hung the first bit of salvaged window trim and are re-stashing the rest to wait until after the floors in the living room and dining room are done.

The very first bit of trim!

This saga goes back to over a year ago now, only a month or so after I bought the house on January 4. The original upstairs trim is all in place, and it’s lovely. Downstairs, however, someone at some point had done a truly enormous remodel and as part of that had ripped out all the original Victorian trim. Here’s what the living room looked like; you can see the windows and doors are just not appropriate for the age of the house.

side note, I’ve put in an enormous amount of effort into this room only to come back around to all white walls and ceiling in here

So, I was scrounging around on facebook marketplace, and saw a post offering a really large amount of salvaged trim that (a) was the right age (b) was gorgeous and (c) was only about a half-hour drive from me. It was also a decent price and had been up for weeks, indicating that there wasn’t a ton of interest. I figured it was a sign, offered a lower price than the post suggested, was accepted, and borrowed Leah’s SUV to go get it. It turned out to be in the second story of a garage next to a pretty new house; the couple had apparently bought it salvaged many years ago and moved it two or three times already before concluding that they were never going to have a house it would be right for, so they were finally selling. (Since they’d bought it salvaged in the first place, they don’t know where it was from, but it wouldn’t be too surprising to me if it hasn’t really traveled far from its point of origin.)

Then I had to get Leah and Peter to come help me haul it into the house because I was exhausted by the time I’d loaded it and driven it home.

It wasn’t actually perfect. There’s not quite enough of it for the whole first floor, there’s no baseboard, and more importantly, it was from a house with at least 12-foot ceilings; mine are 9’6″. But I figured cutting down would be easier than adding. And you can see in this photo I took that day what a big improvement it was going to be over what was there!

Massive fast forward to…I actually can’t remember. Sometime in the late fall or early winter? I hired my neighbor William to mill some new stuff to match. But it’s still just been sitting around in the front room waiting for the dining room and living room to start to look more like rooms. And then suddenly last week I had the wallpaper up, the living room was mostly plastered and painted, and I was nearly ready to go. First step had to be staining and shellacking the newly milled trim.

Here’s the raw oak after I patched in some nail holes

Here it is with a coat of stain

Two on the bottom have stain; two on the top have the first coat of shellac

After three coats of shellac and one of this thing called “restor-a-shine,” wood just starts to glow. It’s so pretty! Not an absolute perfect color match to the old stuff, but I don’t mind and also think that as time goes on the new stuff should darken a bit and get closer in tone to the old.

So, yesterday we did hang one window’s worth of trim, mostly as a test to make sure the nail gun was going to work well enough. It’s the same window as in the contrast photo above.

Isn’t that pretty?! Doesn’t it look Victorian?! But despite an initial plan to keep going today with more windows, I’ve decided to put that off a bit longer. Two things happened: first, putting this test trim on emphasized how much I need to clean the jambs up before I go any further. That white paint still on part of them stands out a mile even in the picture! I also still have to clean up, stain, and shellac the old sills. So, not quite ready to “finish” the windows.” And third, I realized that if we set all the plinth blocks it would make life hell for Charity as she sands floors this week. So, for now it’s just a sign of things to come, and the front porch is turning back into a sanding workshop now that it’s reliably above freezing. Not a moment too soon too — I’ve been using the dining room as a workshop all winter but with the wallpaper up and the floors about to be refinished I have to stop doing that, obviously!

May 1: Massive Progress!

I was pretty down about the house when I left town for a month (for work) back at the end of March. The insulation project which was supposed to be fast and easy and I was paying someone else to do it turned into a WHOLE THING so I spent most of the last two weeks covered in dust and insulation and sort of half-crouched in the attic and just generally very unhappy. Meanwhile, I wasn’t doing the things I’d wanted to nail before I left: finishing the plaster in the living room and (at long last) wallpapering the dining room. So things were just kind of blech, and I knew I’d come back from this long trip to a musty dusty house, etc. And I did. But! After a couple of days of trying to remember what I was supposed to be doing and what a house even was, things started to really move on Friday. This is mostly down to Nate and Charissa, who came over and really kickstarted the process by sizing the dining room walls (the last pre-wallpaper step) and priming the ceiling and most of the walls in the living room.

Heroes! They also fed me twice this week!

I was also finally feeling pretty motivated because Charity’s going to do the floors in these rooms sometime this week (probably) and if I didn’t get going, I was going to be stuck having to tarp the entire freshly done floor in order to do all the painting. So, I gave the primer in the living room overnight to dry, and went for a walk with a friend, and procrastinated some more, but eventually yesterday I sucked it up and painted the living room ceiling. And since I was already kinda messy I thought, I wonder if I can do the wallpaper myself? I’d been low-key trying to talk various people into helping me with it for a while, but it never quite came together, and, well, I wasn’t doing anything else, and I was also really sick of having the boxes sitting around.

It turned out I could, in fact, do it myself!

I’ve never wallpapered anything before, so I wasn’t quite sure how things were going to go. This is about the easiest possible wallpaper could be though. The edges will be covered by molding at both the top and the bottom, so I didn’t have to get those cuts even. And it’s the new-school “paste the wall” wallpaper. Classic wallpaper is made of fibers that expand when you put wet paste on it, which is why you have to be precise in your timing and also make a huge mess on a table. This isn’t quite peel-and-stick vinyl, but it’s made out of a heavy non-woven paper. So you just paint the paste on the wall, using either a roller or a brush, and the timing isn’t anything like as unforgiving. In theory it’s also supposed to be easy to pull off if I decide down the road I want to switch it out. I guess we’ll see about that eventually?

A couple of hours later I was ready to knock off for the night. My process was to use a straightedge to cut on the table, then paste just enough of the wall to hang the new strip (24″ across and about 6′ long), then get it on the wall and smooth it out with whatever worked — my hands, a big drywall knife, a damp paper towel if I needed to get excess paste off, but that also worked pretty well to help smooth. (You can also see how hilariously un-level the walls are if you look at the top! That’s why I have to do molding up there — there was no way to make the wallpaper die into the ceiling, but I can cheat with molding and it won’t be obvious.

I made a reasonable number of dumb mistakes (cutting in the wrong place and having to patch, using too little paste, using too much paste, etc) but overall I was pretty psyched at how well it was going. Off and on I worked on it all day today, too.

Envision a chair rail capping the beadboard and covering the edge of the wallpaper.

By early afternoon, I’d gotten all the way along the long wall and past the kitchen door. At that point things got kind of stressful because I had to deal with not only a wonky, non-plumb inside corner, but then right away I had to get around the old chimney. Luckily, Eric showed up when I was in the middle of the first of these two pieces, and was a huge help in getting it up reasonably straight. It’s not really possible to get it completely perfect due to the wacky nature of the walls, but I think overall it looks pretty good. At this point I realized what I probably should have earlier — that if you have to do either an inside or an outside corner, pre-creasing the paper is a really big help. You can get the crease sharper, but also it makes the paper less prone to weird dragging as you try to navigate the corner.

It came out pretty ok in the end, I think.

At this point I did still have to get through another difficult bit — going around the built-in — but I was on the downward slope. A couple hours later (including, ahem, doing the part around the built-in twice because I screwed up the cut so badly the first time), I was totally finished.

The first piece I hung is the one just to the left of the built-in, so you can see I got all the way around!

I’m really digging the entire thing. It’s actually a two-roll pattern — you alternate A and B rolls — so it’s a full four feet across the wall before the pattern starts to repeat again, and 4.5′ vertically as well. It feels a lot more open than many wallpapers do, as a result. You do waste more paper with such a long vertical repeat, unless your walls are close to the right length, which mine aren’t. I’m giving away all my long offcuts, though, so at least it’ll get used! With so many doors and windows and etc. in the room, I didn’t need an enormous number of rolls even with the long repeat.

Anyway, ending the weekend feeling enormously pleased with myself.

March 19: More Layout Mysteries Solved?

I had half a post about getting insulation out of the attic written and I was going to post it and then the triumphant easy project became…a lot less easy. It’s happening, but it’s more in process than “finished in a day,” oh well, welcome to my house.

So instead, let’s talk about the work Eric and I have been doing on the second floor. As a refresher, here’s the layout when I bought the house (on the left) and what I thought earlier this year was perhaps the original layout (on the right):

However, as I started to work up there a little more recently, I noticed some oddities. Specifically, there was a single panel of drywall on an otherwise all-plaster bedroom; the doorway into the front bedroom was not original (you can tell because the trim isn’t the trim that’s everywhere else upstairs); and there was another oddball panel of drywall on the ceiling of the front bedroom, right inside the door, which I discovered when I pulled at some loose hanging wallpaper.

At this point I was starting to develop a theory of the case, which I confirmed when I realized there was a faint shadow on the floor of bedroom #1, right about where the weird drywall patch in the ceiling ended and the plaster began. So here’s my new theory of the original 1892 layout:

1892 layout, take 2

Notably, this still doesn’t really account for the massive space of the “landing” — if the stairs came up the center hall, as they clearly did, you must have emerged at some point onto this giant landing which would have been a profoundly unusual use of space. I guess maybe there were some big built-in storage units? That would have occupied some square footage. I dunno. Anyway, my new theory proposes that you once entered the front bedroom via the doorway that currently leads to the stairs going down to the first floor. Then, you would have had a big close more or less right next to the door, and the middle bedroom would also have had a cupboard or closet of some kind. When they did the big duplex renovation, they pulled out both closets and reconfigured the door situation, adding a drywall patch to the ceiling of the front bedroom and to the wall of the middle bedroom to cover the removed closets.

Here’s my own current plan:

Essentially, this means knocking out the bit of wall between the stairs and the current entry to both bedrooms to create a new doorway into the front bedroom, and closing up the current door into that bedroom. This achieves two things. First, it means the doors to the two bedrooms aren’t directly on top of each other. They’ll still share a wall, but psychologically they’ll feel more separated, which I think will be nice. And second, it gives me a place to actually put a bed in that front room, which was lacking — the wall configurations were all weird, otherwise. I still might not be able to fit a double bed and a nightstand there, I have to measure, but minimally I can put a twin and nightstand, with a desk against the front window.

Oh, also, did I mention the ceiling drywall patch had a bit of mold on it? I’m not excessively concerned about it for a variety of reasons, but anyway, I wanted to pull it out. So that all led to this (I can’t embed it, sorry, you’ll have to click the link: )

Or, in photo form:

What you see on the right of the photo there is the back of the drywall patch in the bedroom, btw, and indeed it’s clear there used to be a doorway of some kind, presumably into a closet or cupboard; they added a stud down the middle when they drywalled it in, but you can clearly see the old doorframe.

That, plus some cleanup, pretty much took all morning, and then I ran out of the heavy duty contractor bags you need for plaster dust, so here’s what it looks like now:

Definitely getting there. I have someone coming to help me with the rest of the plaster haulout on Monday evening when the weather should be better than it is today (and I’ll have more garbage bags by then too!) and then eventually we’ll turn our attention to reframing, which basically means pulling out the studs on the left and moving them into the hole on the right. I think at that point the big drywall adventure can begin. I need to put up a bunch in the back room where the plaster came down, some big patches in the upstairs hall, and now this wall plus replacing the ceiling patch will have to happen. All reasonably straightforward hah hah famous last words!

PS: work downstairs has been stalled out for a couple weeks while I waited for more supplies to show up — that’s why I suddenly started focusing on upstairs. On Friday, however, I received enough plaster to finish the living room and I also have the dining room wallpaper in hand now. So I might get to some prettier things once the literal dust settles upstairs.

March 6: Experimentation

I feel like I’ve emerged from deep freeze. My day job has been exhausting lately, a state of affairs I doubt will let up until at least May. There have been days when I got zero done on the house. But the last couple of weeks I’ve made major moves forward…none of which are going to visualize well.

The kitchen continues to be two steps forward one step back. First, I took down the newly hung bathroom door so I could do some touchup trim work without getting paint all over the hardware. Where did it end up living for two weeks? In front of the kitchen counter, of course.

Not pictured, but just about where I’m standing to take the picture, is the future dining room table (currently shrouded in cardboard and loaded down with tools), which I moved out of the dining room for over a month because major work was happening in there, and which I kept tripping over (there are reasons I don’t want a kitchen island.)

So, the major and yet somehow almost totally unpicturesque work in the living and dining rooms. First, I spent a week of spare moments scraping loose paint off the ceiling in the living room and dining room, trying not to totally kill my neck in the process or get too much paint in my eyes/nose (yes I wore a mask). This was the hell of a lot of work even though it doesn’t look like much:

the more tan parts are the parts I scraped; the whitish squares were where the paint was well-adhered, so I washed and left it.

Next, my new BFF Jose taped and skim coated them.

This was so worth it. I suck at anything to do with joint compound that’s more complicated than filling a small hole in the wall. There was no way I was going to do a decent job covering an entire ceiling. Having a serious pro do it meant that it came out beautifully, plus it was fun to watch him working on the stilts. Look at how nice this looks halfway through:

The next step with the ceilings is primer and paint. Nate came over and helped me prime the dining room on Friday afternoon while we talked about Vatican II, and then I actually pulled myself together and did a perfectly respectable job painting the ceiling that night.

also primed the walls in advance of wallpaper

The living room ceiling is going to wait for a while because in there, I’ve embarked on a major project: taping cracks and then plastering all the walls using Master of Plaster.

An excursus! In my book, I wrote about how modernist church architects loved using experimental new materials. There were a lot of these in the postwar period because World War II had huge knockon effects on all kinds of engineering and design materials. It wasn’t just reinforced concrete, which at that point had been around for a while; it was new kinds of glass and waterproofing skins and plexi — tons of different kinds of plastics, mostly. Some of these things worked pretty well, others leaked or broke down quickly, either because the material wasn’t quite what everyone hoped it would be, or because people didn’t know how to install it correctly because it was so new, or a combination. The point I wanted to make was that these architects and builders liked to use new materials not “just because” but rather for two theological reasons. First, some new materials allowed buildings to create a visual theology that wouldn’t be possible otherwise — for example, using translucent wall material to allow a unity of inside and outside. And second, it was important to use new technology and material in churches because it was important to make it clear that all this was part of God’s creation and headed towards redemption along with the rest of the universe — there wasn’t really such a thing as a “secular” material.

I guess I have a bit in common with these architects because I enjoy the experimental aspects of this house project. I like to research options for solving different problems, and to try out new-to-me products and tools to see if they work better than the first five things I tried. This can get expensive, but it keeps things interesting, too. And I do accept that some of the things I’m trying won’t work in the long run. For example, I’m not at all sure that my oiled wood countertop is going to hold up forever. Maybe in five or ten years I’ll be replacing it with stone. Or maybe it’ll work great for the next forty years. Who knows?!

This brings me back to the living room. Did I mention that I really dislike working with joint compound? This is too bad because it’s really cheap and readily available. But I’m bad at it. I don’t keep my pressure terribly even and I get a lot of surface variation as a result. I tend to let it build up too thickly and then when I try to even it out I mess up the surface or I take too much off in sanding. Oh, and sanding is awful! The two rooms where I have done a fair amount of work with joint compound (the downstairs bedroom and the kitchen) don’t look great to me. I can live with the unevenness of the walls and ceilings in these two rooms — mostly — but as I got into the two big downstairs public spaces, I started hoping to find something that would be better. And this time as I poked around the internet, I found this blog series on plastering. It kind of sold me on the idea of skim coating (original) lime plaster with (new) lime plaster, rather than with gypsum. (Other posts in the series are here.)

NGL, Master of Plaster — the product described in that blog — is quite expensive, especially compared to joint compound, and you can’t buy it locally unless you live near their factory in South Carolina, so shipping adds $$ too. And you need a bunch of it to cover a room. But I thought, what the hell, and ordered a five-gallon bucket to try out. It wasn’t quite love at first sight, actually. It took me a while to get the hang of applying it without dropping giant globs everywhere, and I made the mistake of starting on a wall that had a bunch of obstructions to manuever around. I was hot and sweaty and my throat felt a bit coated with lime. BUT. Having paid for this expensive bucket, I felt obligated to at least use it all, and as I practiced with it, I found that I started to get the hang of it. It’s sloppier than joint compound, so it goes on in thinner coats, and it spreads beautifully. I learned experimentally not to worry much about the first coat. Just wet the wall, get it covered, and sweep the trowel (or taping knife, which I have found more comfortable to use even though I do actually own a trowel and tried it out) around to get up any excess. The second coat is worth working more, but it’s also got something to grab onto in the rougher first coat.

And now, a hilarious photo of two white bits of wall. I told you this post would be visually boring as all get out.

The top photo is of a section of wall where I just threw up the first coat without worrying too much about it. You can see it’s pretty rough, with lots of trowel marks. And yet at the same time…it’s quite even (you’ll have to take my word for this). Unlike the joint compound, which tends to mound up and undulate for me, this went on in a roughly even thickness. After a few days when I was basically just doing my day job, I finally went back and started on the second coat, and that’s where I started to really feel the magic happening. In the bottom photo, you can see by contrast how much smoother the wall is. It’s not totally smooth — there are lots of small imperfections — but I worked the plaster more as it went on and using spritzes of water after it started to set up, and it got to a point where I was pretty happy with it. I didn’t keep going because I intend to apply a finish coat, but I think if I’d worked harder at it I could have gotten this second coat smooth enough to paint and not hate it.

More importantly, I’m really into the way it feels as I work it. I’ve got a better rhythm down now and I’m not dropping globs everywhere, and through some trial and error I figured out how big a section I could realistically work on at one time before going back to smooth out the partially set old stuff. It really is very friendly to inexperienced idiots. The worst you can do is make a mess by using too much water and creating soup on the wall. Solution — let it dry a bit and then get in there again. Even if you let it over-set, if you spray it and wait a minute it’ll free up enough to be workable. And you can’t really over-work it either, which is very unlike joint compound, where I was constantly trying to fix one error only to create fifteen new ones.. You just kind of stop when you’re happy with a section.

I’m no professional plasterer; I’m sure it’s taking me ten times as long to get a result that’s half as good. But this is a product and a process I can actually see myself working with over much of the rest of the house. I’m super glad I decided to try out something new.

The living room, before I got into the plastering business
the living room, after two coats (wall on the right looks patchy because it’s still drying; the greyer bits are fairly wet)

Meanwhile, two other quick updates! First, Eric put the last of the kitchen drawers in today and also rehung the door jamb:

Obviously, this is not the end of the kitchen. But I’ve decided to cook in it for the next six months or so before I move on to finishing it. It’s functional now — drawers, cabinets, appliances, shelves — and while part of me feels weird about just leaving it so raw and unfinished, missing face frames, trim, final countertops, a soffit above the built-in, etc, the rest of me thinks it would be a good idea to just live in the space for a while and see if I want to move anything else around. I’m leaning in to the experimental spirit, that is to say.

Second, I have a mostly bat-proof bedroom door!

It closes and latches and everything! Obviously a bat could get in if it worked at it; there’s a huge gap at the bottom. But nobody’s going to just come swooping in because they get lost. This is a pretty big relief, tbh.

I had a really big day and I’m pretty wiped out now. But this week I’m looking forward to starting to put the final coat of plaster on the living room; continuing to chip away (literally) at the old paint in my future bedroom upstairs; and choosing and ordering the dining room wallpaper. If I don’t keel over from day-job stress first!

February 16: The Winter Golds

So first there was the holidays, and then I missed the house’s one-year anniversary, and then there was a bunch of stomping around and muttering about snow and ice, and what with one thing and another it’s just been a really long time.

Nothing dramatic has happened, mind you. Some weeks nothing happened, really. Others, I spent a bunch of time scraping paint.

this is in my future bedroom upstairs. The vaguely map of europe shape is a complete accident, I was just working on what was easy/ready to come loose and this turned out to be it? Weird.

This is a task I find deeply satisfying when I’m doing it horizontally on sawhorses or vertically on a wall, and very painful when I’m doing it on a ladder with my neck bent back to work on the ceiling, but either way isn’t really super photogenic. That said, it’s now been over two months since I last wrote, so let’s try to sum up the interim, hmmm?

(1) I more or less built a kitchen cabinet

This was a very interesting exercise. It definitely came out better than my previous cabinet building attempts, and it’s more or less functional, even. I hired my neighbor to build and install the central drawer stack (in retrospect, if I’d bought a table saw a few weeks earlier, I would’ve just done that myself, but at the time, hiring out made sense.) I still don’t know how to make something perfectly square and level, so everything is just a bit off and I definitely spent an evening crying irrationally about it, but I don’t think it looks much worse than if it had been sitting around in a settling house for a hundred years or so. Here’s a few more pictures with the drawers (minus their fronts) and a visiting poodle:

And also the cool mixer lift! I installed that myself. Passing over in silence the part where I first installed it upside down, it wasn’t actually hard to do, and it’s just pretty awesome.

In that last picture, taken pre-drawers, you can see more or less the new kitchen wall layout. This is how it’s going to stay for at least the next six months. I’m not convinced it’s final — I have accepted I am a tinkerer — but I’m committed to living with it for a while before I make any further decisions. It’s totally functional as it is right now.

(2) The downstairs bedroom closet acquired its built-in shelves.

It’s so hard to see what’s going on. Let’s try an overhead layout.

That purple thing in the middle there shows where I extended the bedroom closet into the area behind the fridge. The shelves are 12″ deep and my other neighbor built them for me. They came out great! I put a couple coats of combined poly-stain on the plywood and also edge-banded them so they look a little bit less like plywood. I still have some finishing work to do in that closet (unbelievable amounts of work have gone into it. It’s a closet. But there are so many angles and odd spots that needed filling) but for now, it’s fine. (Are you sensing a theme?) I put a bunch of my clothing on the shelves and also stacked five or six quilts that we cleaned out of my parents’ house, all of which are eventually headed upstairs when those bedrooms come online, but this is a good place for them for now.

(3) I demoed more of the basement.

When I bought it the whole basement ceiling had been covered in ratty, slightly moldy, very thin ply.

One of the first things we did was pull most of it down, but the part that was above the big ledge was hard to get to; you can kinda see in that photo that they’d built a whole structure for cabinet doors along the ledge. I didn’t really think about it at all until suddenly in December I had to get up there to look the gas line and lo and behold there was a bunch of, well, ratty, slightly moldy thin ply, anchored by assorted ratty, slightly moldy 1×2 that was nailed to the joists and to a…sill plate, I guess? Whatever, a ratty, slightly moldy board that ran across the bottom of the ledge. Once I realized it was there it was grossing me out and it just had to go, so I got my serious demo gear on and pried/sawed it all out at a time that I had a small dumpster in the yard. It was disgusting, but felt great to get it out. Er, right up to the moment when I decided to make one last cut to pull out a bit of wood right near a tangle of piping and wiring under the kitchen sink and naturally went too far and clipped a bit of the PEX pipe.

Fortunately, the water shutoff is also in the basement, so I ran over and turned it off and there wasn’t time for too much water to get everywhere. Then I texted everyone I know and someone eventually was able to come over and fix it. This was necessary both because it was Sunday afternoon and a real plumber would have been cost prohibitive, and because I could not possibly have looked a real plumber in the eye and admitted what I’d done. And fixing this kind of thing is actually not hard at all if you have the correct tools; I don’t or even I could have DIYed it, and I’m definitely scared of plumbing.

(4) I started clearing out and then working on the dining room/de facto woodshop

This is actually the first “new” room I’ve started in the house. The entire first year was occupied with exterior projects and with the mudroom-kitchen-bathroom-bedroom block, all of which I was working on simultaneously. Meanwhile the living room, dining room, and foyer collected miscellaneous supplies, wood, tools, etc, and especially once it got too cold to work outside I set up sawhorses in the dining room for various scraping and painting projects, like shellacking the doors. Oh btw! Eric finally got the doors hung! It took like six weeks even after I finally finished the shellac process because we kept trying to hang them and realizing we weren’t ready — I didn’t have the hardware quite together, I didn’t have a chisel, wood filler wasn’t dry…this went on forever. And as a matter of fact like the kitchen and the closet the doors are still not 100%; I’m missing bits of hardware for three of the four. But WHATEVER, they look fantastic even not quite all the the way there.

So anyway, back to the dining room, I hadn’t touched it. It still had little pawprints under one window from the previous tenant.

So, clearing it out took most of a weekend. Just tons and tons of stuff, including stacks of trim and plywood. But it’s starting to come along now. I had a little labor party for my birthday at the end of January; several friends and I cleaned up a bunch of old beadboard I’d acquired off fb marketplace and Charity installed it. Of course, it’s not enough to get all the way around the room, but it’s gorgeous and I love it, especially that it turned out once the old finish was off to be at least two different kinds of wood. The variation is so cool. There’s no particular rush, so I’m going to keep an eye out for matching vintage stuff to finish the room, but if I don’t find any I’ll mill some new stuff out of oak eventually. It’s a really simple profile, I think even I could do it with a router, but if it turns out I can’t I can hire it out.

Next steps include buying chair rail and picture molding (also trying to source vintage but open to other options) and…choosing wallpaper.

This was the original set of samples I ordered. The birds and flowers (two versions, in white and green) are gorgeous, but they turned out in person to be out of scale for the room. The bees were too country. I still have the other five on the wall, but I’m leaning towards the white one with the delicate spray pattern. It’s got more texture than you can see in the photo, with a cross-hatched background, and I think it’ll be a little easier than the others to work with — less dominant, so more room for other stuff to be happening in the room. But I still might go with the one on the bottom there — the white/silver/gold. There’s part of me that thinks if I’m doing wallpaper at all, I really should just go with a strong pattern, and I think that would go really nicely with the dining room table and chairs I have. I think either will serve my main goal, which is to have something with some shimmer that candles can bounce off of.

The same weekend the beadboard went up, we heaved the built-in into place. This is a salvage piece and it’s a bit rough, but I figured I could work on it later, and for now I needed it out of the living room where it was really starting to get in the way.

(5) I did some planning for what the next few months will look like. Last year was a lot of big house systems. 80% of the electricity, 70% of the plumbing, 100% of the HVAC, the entire roof, the entire foundation…. This year’s projects are all smaller, but important. There are some critical exterior projects (soffit repair and paint, gutters, exterior window repair, storm windows) that have to be done when the weather breaks. Inside, there’s framing to do upstairs, and also, I’m going to have the staircase rebuilt using mostly pieces I salvaged in the fall. Therefore, I kept an eye out on fb marketplace to source what I was missing, and on my way to see my family for Christmas, I took a detour to see a man about a newel post.

My traveling companion was not impressed, but I like it! I’m not sure how much I should worry about it being a different wood/finish than the rest of the staircase. I have two options there — either lean into the difference, or I guess strip the newel post and refinish it to look more like the rest.

And that’s it! Or actually that’s not it, because after I finally edited those photos a few days ago another big project got underway, but this is long enough and I’m just hitting post.

December 9: Adulting

There has been so much of it lately! After the big push I documented in my last post, to get ready for the appraiser, progress has been reasonably steady on the doors and door jambs, but nobody has been to work inside the house but me, and I, obviously, have a lot of other calls on my time. I’ve just been scraping and refinishing when I can, and also got a bunch of plywood cut for the kitchen cabinet units.

The main progress has been practical, though. The appraiser came before Thanksgiving and sent his report to the bank right after the holiday, and the house did appraise high enough for me to get the HELOC I wanted. I think I talked a little about how I’ve been financing this early on, but that was a long time ago, so just to recap: I had been saving cash for a long time in case I didn’t have a job, so I had about $50K to start with. But the rest was a little tricky. There are two main ways to get a renovation loan. The first is to roll it into a mortgage, but I wasn’t getting a mortgage because I bought the house in cash for $1000. The second is to go through a pretty complex FHA-backed process, which I think is actually quite a good way to go because it means inspectors are really watching your contractors. But that was going to take longer than I wanted, and also would have required me to have a general contractor, and I didn’t think I had enough budget for a GC. If I hadn’t had any other option, I could have done that — in fact, I found a bank that would have done it with me — but instead I opted to take out a $40K personal loan, backed only by my excellent credit and high income. This, obviously, is a privileged situation, but I was in it, so that’s what I did. I also got a new credit card with a zero-interest-for-a-year deal so that I could buy materials and worry about that down the line. The personal loan had a relatively high interest rate, so the plan was always to refinance into a HELOC when the house was worth something again. This is what I’ve just done, so on Friday when the HELOC money becomes available I’ll begin the process of paying off the personal loan and the credit card, and will just have something resembling a mortgage payment. I imagine I’ll want to pay this off sooner rather than later, but I’ll probably wait to get aggressive with it until I’ve cash-flowed the last big projects for the house, all of which are slated for next year (the main staircase, the upstairs bathroom, new storm windows, and gutters.) I went with a HELOC rather than a straight home equity loan in part because the interest rate I could get was lower, but in part because I liked the idea of paying it down to avoid interest but still having it available just in case, since it’ll probably take me a little while to rebuild a cash emergency fund.

Second big piece of adulting was just completed this morning. In the contract I made with the city, I promised to spend X dollars in the course of the first year. Closing date was January 4 of this year, so last month I pulled my receipts together and sent them off, and this morning at a brief meeting of the relevant city department my evidence was accepted and I should receive a document shortly affirming that the contract is fulfilled and I have no more obligations to the city.

Third big piece was getting internet at the house. There was no line leading in, and I spent a long and frustrating month wrestling with Xfinity/Comcast’s various automated customer service options before giving up on Sunday and driving up to their store in Granger. I did a genuine, yet mildly performative, desperate yet very polite routine, and the people at the store were honestly great. They sorted out the issue that leading me to get nowhere with the automated system, and also scheduled a tech to come string the wires on Tuesday (two days ago). He had to get the new wire over the garage, and told me it was one of the hardest things he’d done in his ten years of doing this! But I’m online from home now.

Fourth big piece of practicality: I’ve now run three loads of laundry!!!!! The mudroom is still not done done — I don’t know if I’m ever going to do a big “reveal” of anything because there’s always still a list. In the mudroom, for example, I still have to strip the windows and trim and refinish those; put a storm window on the fourth window so I can take the plywood down; get a bench for taking off shoes; hang a couple of shelves for laundry supplies; get the ceiling light hung; find a cover for the electric switches; finish my little Guadalupe shrine; and rehang the ironing closet door. (And probably some more stuff I’ve forgotten about). And yet, I am very happy with how it is right this second.

Especially considering how it started!

So, finances, laundry, internet, and door jambs. Not the most glamorous of weeks, but very important!

November 24: The Circle of Paint

I feel pretty good overall, although I wish contractors and appraisers and so on would stop telling me how many projects there are to do. I know there are projects! That’s why I’m talking to you, contractor and/or appraiser!

But no, really, I do feel pretty good. Getting all that about the kitchen off my chest was very helpful, and so was a full three day push last weekend. I’m feeling a little broke but I hired some folks anyway and it was, as usual, very worth it.

Eric balletically put up trim in the mudroom (because of the complex beadboard ceiling it needed quite a bit of trim)

He also shingled over the former dining room door (RIP)

And shingled the front porch.

Almost there

The shingles are a good story! I’d been resisting buying more to do the porch because I don’t like them that much and hope to replace them with clapboard eventually, but I was also out of harvested material and not sure what I was going to do. But then I got a text when I was in NY that Kathy had seen her friend Tony taking the very same shingles off *his* house to replace with clapboard, and did I want them? Yes I did! So I went and met Tony when I got back and picked up not only enough for the porch, but enough for future repairs as well. He was inspirational too as he’s been working on his house for 18 years. I’m hoping to be done before that, but my house is probably half the size and I don’t have five kids either….

Meanwhile, Charity was doing thresholds for my bathroom and closet, and also figuring out how to install the last mudroom window (which wasn’t made for that spot so it required a lot of finagling), and also doing most of the work of splitting my giant pile of salvaged trim off its backing (I helped! but kept having to go do other stuff.)

a pile of trim pieces post splitting
Only one casualty! Gluing and clamping the only piece that split. Other pieces awaiting denailing at bottom.
Some of the pieces have 130-year-old (ish) writing on them

There’s good news and medium news on the salvaged trim front. I didn’t really know how much I had until we split and denailed it. The good (really, great) news is that there’s almost enough plinth blocks and rosette corners to do the whole first floor (not the kitchen and mudroom and bathroom, but the foyer, living and dining rooms, and bedroom). I’ll have to try to scavenge a few more to finish things off, but even without that we’re in very good shape. However, there’s some weirdness because the — I don’t know what to call them. Connector parts? The long rectangular pieces that run up/across a window or doorframe. Anyway, this trim was made for a totally different size of house than mine, a much bigger one (at least 12′ ceilings, I have 9’6″). I’d been figuring on cutting down the long pieces to fit my windows and doors. But it turned out that, once split from the backing, there aren’t really any long pieces. They used rosettes to join shorter ones, and even the longer pieces aren’t long enough for my six foot windows — although fortunately the pieces that run across the top of the windows and doors are exactly the right size. So, there are two possible solutions. One, which I’m not going to do (mostly), would be to stack two pieces of shorter trim and have a visible seam. The other is to have the backing pieces, which are identically sized strips of the same oak as the trim itself, cut to the right lengths and milled to match. That’s the direction I’m going in right now; I know a guy who has the equipment to do this and he came by the other day to pick up a sample piece so he can order the “knife” to cut it. So my job in between now and mid December is to figure out how to match the finish on the old trim, or at least get close enough that it won’t look weird next to the old rosettes and plinth blocks. It’ll look great, I’m not worried about it.

Meanwhile — there really was a lot happening — Ryan was priming the mudroom, and I was three feet away from him stripping paint off a lot of window hardware. It did seem a little absurd to be paying someone to put paint on while I took paint off….

The hinges turn out to be steel, not brass, which isn’t too surprising; this was a nice but not fancy house and I totally get why they thought hinges were a place they could cut a corner or three. A mild bummer for me because steel rusts, so I have to probably clean them up a bit more and then do something protective before I rehang the doors, whereas if they were brass I could just polish and rehang and call it a day. But at least we’re underway. I did the crockpot thing to get most of the paint off. It worked ok, though every piece also needed to be scrubbed pretty well with steel wool after the main part of the paint came away.

And speaking of paint coming off, the sanding was happening upstairs:

Midway through this room, although actually fairly close to done. I asked them not to go totally all the way because I’m not sure what I’m doing yet. I might paint all these floors, in which case this is enough. But if I decide to poly them instead I want to finish off with a gentler orbital sander rather than the drum sander the pros use. It saved me a little money, although if I do eventually rent an orbital sander that’ll make up for it. But anyway, it was most important to me to just get someone else to do the heavy stuff. Way too much time and dust for me to want to do it myself.

Excitingly, I hung some numbers and the mailbox up! Oh, and the pile of pine branches there is from having the giant pine trimmed. The same guy also cut down the weird skinny pine on the other side of the house. I’m planning on building some really big raised beds next week and filling them with tree debris, hugelkultur style.

I ended up painting the mudroom myself because before Ryan could come back I got a “surprise! your dryer is being delivered!” notice and I was just totally determined not to have another appliance sitting in the living room. I wanted it in its place! Barely made it; the second coat was still a bit tacky to the touch when they dropped it off:

Note the classy garbage bags I taped up over the sheathing because I am very, very much not a neat painter. In fact, despite having dropcloths down on the entire floor (they’re pulled away in the picture for the dryer delivery) I still somehow ended up having to wipe a ton of paint spots up with goof-off after the whole thing was done. Paint is just not my forte. But it looks well enough, if not professional, and it’s only the mudroom after all. Bound to get banged up anyway.

Finally, made a bit more aesthetic and practical progress on the bathroom front as Eric hung both a windowsill and some shelves:

I feel very lucky to have met him!

November 16: Reworking the Kitchen Layout. Again.

The TL;dr here is that I screwed up the kitchen design and it took me a long time to accept that and I feel mad at myself about it and also embarrassed but also better now that I have in fact accepted it and am moving forward with a big layout change. You can skip to part 4 if you want to avoid the angst.

Let me start by saying that over the last few months I’ve built up a lot of shame and guilt around the kitchen. This sounds insane (and I am in fact insane, since I’m doing this project at all) and yet it’s true! I don’t have a therapist right now so am going to try to exorcise this by writing out my feelings here as I explain why it’s not done yet even though it really should have been done two months ago and why I’ve wasted a bunch of time and some (though fortunately not a ton) of money and am about to make a substantial layout change. I’m taking some comfort in the fact that I am not the only person in the world to make a series of big mistakes while in theory being able to do anything I want, and I am not the only person in the world to re-renovate a kitchen immediately after renovating it the first time, and I do feel better having decided to just go for some big changes now instead of trying to limp along with something I’m just not happy with. (And unlike the two links there, the amount of wasted money we’re talking about is closer to maybe $2000 all-in than to probably $15,000 or $20,000. Annoying definitely, makes me feel dumb definitely, but not the end of the world.)

  1. Let’s start with how we got here.

Pretty much since I first saw the house I knew I’d keep the basic layout of the existing sink wall, although shrinking a double sink to a single and reworking the lower cabinets on the right to make room for a dishwasher.

OK, there was SOME WORK TO BE DONE, but the layout was clearly the right layout, with the sink under the window and a full bank of lower cabinets. If I’d been starting from scratch I might have gone with open shelving instead of uppers, but no real reason to mess with what was there.

Here’s that wall in early August, refurbished in a variety of ways but recognizable:

Not much has changed on this wall since, though I clearly have more work to do. Some of the doors and drawers were salvaged from the old unit and just have to be sanded and painted, but three need to be made entirely new to fit the two different-sized lower cabinets, and I need new hardware and hinges as well. I’m also thinking of building upper cabinet boxes to the ceiling to store things like mason jars that it turned out I don’t really have room for anywhere else. But none of that will change the basic situation over there.

The other 2.5 walls have been giving me fits.

I have to be honest here, when I bought the house I was not expecting to have trouble with kitchen design. I’ve been cooking for a long time and I’ve used a lot of kitchens and I know and can articulate what I like — compact spaces with everything close to hand, good lighting, easy access in shallower cabinets or open wall storage rather than deep storage where I can’t reach the back. One thing that appealed to me about this house was that the kitchen was a decent size but not excessive, and that except for the sink wall it was also a blank slate, which I thought would make it easier. Maybe I was just overconfident? But also, looking back, I think I have to chalk a bunch of this up to exhaustion. What you’re supposed to do when you design a kitchen is sit down, think about what you have and what you want to have close to hand, envision yourself actually standing and cooking at various locations, and go from there. I know that, I know it’s really sensible, and I just…never did it. It’s not like I didn’t think about the layout at all, of course. For example, I did this drawing of two options on March 1, when I was in a huge hurry because the HVAC and plumbers and electricians had actually already started and were going to need to know where to put things very very soon. (The roughin was done months and months before the kitchen started to look more finished around about late summer.)

The layout on the right is roughly what I think they had before. The stove was definitely on the middle of that interior wall, anyway, and I can’t think of another good place for them to have had the fridge. Everything on that wall got cleared out after the fire, so I don’t really know, but it seems likely. Anyway, I considered this layout, with a big built in pantry in the former closet space to the left of the door, but talked myself out of it in favor of the layout on the left, which had the benefit of putting the stove on a (nearly) exterior wall where it would be easier to vent outside. In theory that’s ok, and it looks especially ok when you’re looking down at a layout rather than experiencing the space in 3D. But again, I never really just took an hour to visualize myself in the space and to walk through where I’d store things and how accessible that would make them. And then once I’d given everyone the go-ahead to rough in, I felt stuck with it.

The other thing that happened, though, was that I made three decisions while we were already in process that each, individually, was a pretty good decision, but that collectively added up to trouble. This is why you’re supposed to design the whole thing at once! But it just didn’t happen that way.

Decision #1, already mentioned, was to put the stove on the “exterior” wall. The upsides to that: I could vent to the exterior pretty easily, and I could stand at the stove and see out a window by looking sideways through the door.

Decision #2 was to open up the mudroom door by removing a stud. The upsides: much more natural light in the kitchen, general feeling of openness.

Decision #3 was to retain the half-chimney in the corner of the “exterior” wall, as a gesture to the house’s history. A lot has been removed from this house, so I valued the opportunity to hang onto something.

I don’t actually regret either decision 2 or 3 (maybe 3 a little), and decision 1 was pretty sensible insofar as it went. I think any one of those would probably have been ok. But collectively, they meant far less space to play with on the “exterior” wall where the stove was roughed in. And that meant that when I finally did put the stove in place, the entire layout on that wall felt super tight. If the kitchen were even a foot deeper along that “exterior” wall I think we wouldn’t be having this conversation, probably! And it wasn’t just the feeling, although that was bad enough. I really didn’t have enough places to put things I wanted to store close at hand, to be able to reach from the stove or by taking just a step or two away. I felt like I had a theoretically functional kitchen with a working sink, stove, and fridge, where the counter and cabinet design looked ok on paper, but that felt really awkward and weird to actually stand in, and that didn’t have a good place for either my most-used pots and pans, or for my large collection of things in bottles (spices, oils, vinegars, etc).

2. Moving on: less aggressive solutions that didn’t actually work

I want to stop here and stress again that I am kind of a crazy person about kitchens (which is why I should have done the visualization exercise, because I know I am a crazy person about kitchens! Again, I chalk it up to exhaustion), and this is all massively first world problems and I understand that.

But despite knowing this I really haven’t been able to let it go. In fact, while telling myself it was dumb and I should just work with what I had, I spent a bunch of September and October, when I wasn’t traveling, trying to solve the problem I felt in my body, even though I should have been doing many other theoretically much more urgent things. The kitchen is very important to me; I will spend a ton of time there and I want to actually like it; and how I was spending my time was telling me that even when my intellect would have said other stuff.

To make a long story short, I tried two main things, neither of which worked. First, I tried moving the fridge over to the wall opposite the sink, thinking that if I did that, I could rework the former fridge area to be a more robust storage/pantry as I’d suggested on one of the diagrams above. But it was immediately clear that was not going to work — totally cluttered.

Then, I was at a store that was having a going out of business sale and bought two very, very cheap cabinets, thinking maybe I could run them along that wall instead of the table I had originally planned and at least put my pots and pans into them.

This is definitely better than the move-the-fridge option. But there’s still no place for spices; the cabinets are too deep by several inches in relationship to the stove, which, again, I can’t move over to the left because now there’s a wide door there; and I just disliked in person (thought I was fine with it on paper) the gap on that wall between the cart next to the stove and the cabinet. I don’t like stepping into it in order to get things. I feel weird standing at the stove and knowing that there’s cabinets right behind me, and I don’t like standing at the stove and having to turn around and bend to get stuff from the cabinets. And finally, I really dislike the way the stove hood and the half-chimney are playing together visually. They’re too close to each other, too much going on.

But it was better than the fridge-on-this-wall option so at this point I put a lot of time and energy (and asked other people to put time and energy) into trying to get the cabinets to be three inches shallower, thinking that might work, which makes me want to cry and I’m not going to say anything else about it.

At this point I left town again (in fact, I’m still not back) and while I’ve been working and doing other things, my subconscious has been turning over the kitchen problem. It is probably actually good that I had some time away; I needed some distance to recognize that even with the slightly shallower cabinets I just put a bunch of work into, this l-shaped layout for that wall was still not going to feel right, because it would still have the stove too tight to the corner and leave me with the cabinets behind me. And there still wouldn’t be a place to put my spices, except in one of the top cabinet drawers, and I don’t like spice drawers; and no place to put the vinegar and oil bottles, either.

3. Giving up and starting over

It has been kind of a relief to just give up on that layout, though, despite feeling mad and guilty about having gotten it wrong. I spent so much of the last couple of months trying to accept it and make it work or make myself adapt to it, and it just wasn’t happening. I more or less started the design process over about ten days ago — went back to the beginning, looking at lots of pictures of kitchens online, made sketches, and this time I did the damn visualization exercise too — and while there is more work and (hopefully not too much) money ahead, I feel a lot more at peace than I think I would if I was going to make another attempt at solving the problem with the layout as is.

Here are a few pictures I saved from the most recent round. None of these are layout pics, they’re mostly about looking at cabinet storage that will solve some of the problems I don’t currently have great solutions to (pot lid storage, spice storage).

I’m looking at stacks of drawers there. Both my main attempts to solve that long wall so far have involved horizontal rather than vertical lower cabinets. My first thought was a kitchen table with baskets underneath; my second was the drawer stack concept. I actually love the kitchen table idea, but I think I’d need a third viable wall in the kitchen to make it work, and I only really have two; I need cabinet space more. Also loving the clever use of verticals in these pictures: the open filler cabinet for baking sheets, the cutting board storage on the cabinet door, the pull-up appliance lift.

Here, I’m looking at two things: the narrow vertical pullouts, and the vertical pot lid storage. The latter is a longtime favorite of mine — you can do it different ways but it’s just nice to have the lids vertical/flat rather than horizontal/stacked.

And I spent a bunch of time looking at pictures of over the stove pot racks (chose these two nearly at random, though what I like about them both is they’re not overwhelming — a simple bar, maybe with a small rack and a plant above). I’ve loved pot racks in both kitchens I’ve used that had them — one, in a probably 25 square foot New York kitchen, hung them directly over the stove, while the most recent kitchen had them on a short wall. I feel like maybe I always wanted a pot rack in this kitchen and that was why I didn’t ever truly decide where to store the pots and pans? I also realized through this process that I very much want the stove not to feel like it’s in a corner. It needs some breathing room on each side.

4. The next try: move everything and build some cabinets

I feel like at least there are some things we’re starting with now. One: the opened up door and the half-chimney are staying, so I really do have to work around those, and there’s also no question about the fridge location anymore; it needs to stay where it is. Two: in the interim I’ve taught myself to build cabinets which, if not remotely up to today’s pro standards, are probably up to the homemade standards of 1920. When I started this project a year ago the thought of making some custom cabinets for this wall was totally out of the picture, and now it’s not.

My current layout thinking goes something like this:

Left to right, this is: cabinet under the half chimney, then stove, then more cabinets, then the trash can, then the door.

I’ve tried to really spend a bunch of time thinking through the cabinet design, though since I haven’t been home to measure, I haven’t made an exact plan yet. (I know I have roughly 9.5 feet along that wall but I’m not sure to the inch.) Here was my first iteration of the new wall design:

This is pretty good, I think, although you can see that I started sketching over it as I refined some details. First: I’m going to try adding a narrow slider underneath the half chimney. It’ll have spices on the top, maybe a vertical pot lid or two on the bottom, or maybe vinegar bottles. I don’t know what height or width I’m looking at precisely there either, so tbd.

Then, to the right of that will be an open cupboard with I think three shelves, if I can fit them (need to measure cookware.) The top will be a rack for shorter pot lids, then two compartments for my dutch ovens and my canning pot. On the countertop I’ll have a utensil crock and a basic olive oil, and I think I can hang my paper towel/potholder rack (formerly attached to a fridge, but that won’t work here) on the spice pullout.

Then the stove with a small pot rack over it for three saucepans and two frying pans that are in constant rotation. Then a custom cabinet with a drawer stack and a mixer lift cabinet, then the trash can, then the door.

I got some more ideas and started scribbling over that, so here’s a cleaner version with the new details incorporated:

The scale isn’t as good on this as on the earlier sketch — I made all the counters too high and so everything looks pulled out and narrow — but the idea is clear enough. This is basically very similar, but I stole something from one of the photos above and added a narrow but undoored vertical for baking sheets to the right of the stove, which means I can put casserole dishes in the broiler drawer, which gives me an extra drawer in the vertical stack. I need a relatively deep one for mixing bowls, because there’s no upper cabinet there and I don’t want to have to get them from across the room every time I need one (ie multiple times a day). The big question is how wide this whole unit will be. I think I have somewhere between 40 and 50 inches to work with. It’ll be fine, once I’ve measured (wall, chimney, and cookware) I just have to sit down and work out all the math. If I can fit my biggest pot lids (13″) behind the pot rack that would help a lot; otherwise they’ll have to go on the bottom of the spice slideout, which would be all right but would displace the vinegar bottles, likely to the pantry next to the fridge.

So there’s details to work out. But I love the compactness of this setup and it makes my body feel good to imagine working there. It has dedicated spaces for spices, oil, utensils, pots, cleaning supplies — the basics I reach for when I’m already in the middle of a project. When I envision myself standing at the stove, most of what I need will be either directly to my left or in front of/slightly above me. When I envision myself standing at the workspace assembling a cake or chopping vegetables, most of what I need will be right below or above or in front of me, and if it’s not it’s probably a couple of steps to the right in the fridge or the pantry cabinet. There’s some side to side and up and down motion here, but not a lot of straight up turning around, unlike with the stove on the “exterior” wall when everything felt at my back. And there’s no weird visual break, either. It’s basically become a standard U-shaped kitchen with a few doors interrupting it.

What about that “exterior” wall anyway? I’m not completely sure. This setup will, I think, work really well for almost everything except ventilation. You’ll note that my drawings don’t have a stove hood, both because I’m now really wary, visually speaking, of putting one that close to the half chimney, and because actually getting the vent out from that position would be a big production.[1] For now, I’m going to put a pull-chain exhaust fan on that wall (using the duct that we installed already). Then a lot of the lower part needs to stay clear so that the spice pullout can slide in front of it. So I might just put up a piece of art and call it a day. Or there might be room for another hanging rod. I don’t want to clutter it though, so I think I’ll see what it looks and feels like after the main wall is put back together.

5. Hey, what about the pantry cabinet?

it started out like this
then this
in early September it looked like this. It looks much better and more finished now but I don’t seem to have any pictures because I think I was too depressed about the whole kitchen project to take any in October when I was working more on this.

It’s a work in progress; I’ve actually reconstructed it three times now and I’m debating a fourth because, as is now abundantly obvious, I’m a crazy person. The first time, I put the uprights in place but didn’t cross-brace them across the back, so nothing was square enough. Try #2 worked better, but the cabinet was SO deep — I’d done it that way on purpose to use most of the space (there’s about 40 inches there and I got the uprights cut to 36 inches) but in person it felt overwhelming and I could tell I was just never going to use the back parts of the cabinet. I could have left it like that and just used the fronts of the shelves, of course, but I realized that if I pulled it down, trimmed the back, and rebuilt it, I could still use a lot of the dead space, this time for storage inside the guest bedroom closet on the other side of the wall. So in October I did that — took everything out, cut the uprights down, put it all back up again. It’s much more usable now, so that’s good! But I’m now thinking I’d like to include a narrow vertical pullout like the ones in the pictures above. This would occupy either 3 or 6 of the 24 inches of pantry width, if I put it together from a stock pullout solution, or if I custom made it, maybe 4 inches. It would hold canned goods and bottles and some less used spices, so that would be super useful. The problem is I would have to take out and cut down all the horizontal shelves, pull the lid and both uprights down, rebuild the whole thing as an 18″ rather than a 24″ cabinet, then slide the pullout in on the right. It’s tempting to say “well I’ll do that in the future if I feel like it,” but if I am going to do it at all, now is a better time than two years from now. I haven’t done the finishes yet — the face frame, the internal lower cabinet structure, the countertop — so if I’m going to change the dimensions of those things it’s a better idea to just do it now. On the upside, even though I didn’t get it right the first or possibly the third time, my actual construction abilities have increased dramatically over the course of this project. Every time I rebuild it I get better at making even cuts and squaring things up. Picture a laughsob emoji here.

[1] Ventilation. Sigh. I know I ought to have more of it. At least I do, now, feel that it is possible to run a vent out from that interior wall to the exterior. When I first did the kitchen layout I didn’t think that was the case, because we weren’t sure what was behind the framed out and plastered box that turned out to have the half chimney, and for all we knew we were talking about drilling through heating pipes or something. Now that this has all been uncovered and peeled back, it seems we probably could run a vent horizontally between the ceiling joists to the exterior. But it’s a big expensive project I don’t want to get into right now, and I think I can live with a wall exhaust to the left of the stove for a while, especially since I don’t generally produce a ton of grease when I cook.

November 15: Doors to Nowhere

HELLO, I am still here and still renovating! If you’re facebook friends with me you’ve seen the occasional picture update, and also know that actually not a ton has gotten done since I last blogged in mid August. First of all, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling this fall; I’m nearing the end of my second three-week stint out of town now. Second, I’ve had some false starts in the kitchen, so work in there has been kind of do it — undo it — redo it — rethink everything again. (More on this below). And third, because of some stuff going on with my now-mostly-former housemates’ family, I ended up moving a lot of my things over to the new house very abruptly shortly after the last time I wrote, to make more room for them in the old house. This hasn’t been great from the renovating point of view because a thing I still don’t have much of is storage, so I’ve spent a fair amount of the fall getting overwhelmed by piles of things and finding it difficult to actually make progress. Such is life!

Anyway, let me bring you up to date on what has been done and then I’ll talk about the kitchen situation in a later post.

  1. I had some help during a visit from my parents, brother, and niece
much help
Less cute, but knows more math

2. My friend Charity who is also renovating an old house came over and helped me refinish the kitchen and ground floor bedroom floors. The rest of the floors will wait a while but I thought these should be done before I put furniture into them.

Charity sanding in the bedroom
the kitchen floor — I think this is after one coat, we did two.

I’m using a hardened oil product to finish them rather than poly because I preferred the natural, matte, hand-rubbed look. It’s a little harder to apply but honestly not much more, and has the great benefit that you can walk on it just a few hours after it goes down, and it has no fumes or off-gassing. Of course the floors are now all messed up and dusty due to ongoing work but they’ll be fine once things settle down more.

3. I got ambitious at like 8 pm on a random Saturday and suddenly decided to create the closet door for the downstairs bedroom. This closet used to open into the kitchen, but now that opening is behind the fridge, so I wanted it to open into the bedroom (which had no closet) instead. Would it have been sensible to just go ahead and do this demo prior to fixing all the other walls up and having the room primed and refinishing the floors? Yes. Don’t @me. I really should have done this earlier, but (a) the space I would have needed to work in was occupied for a long time by various other supplies and (b) I was intimidated by the reframing I knew would have to be done and therefore kept putting it off. The good news is that now that I finally have done it, I realized it’s actually pretty easy. Dusty, yes; requiring a number of steps, yes; but not super hard. It made me feel much more confident about some future projects upstairs that will also involve cutting holes in walls and reframing doors.

I started by just pulling off some layers on the inside of the closet. There was thin cedar paneling over furring strips over drywall over more drywall (on the bottom) and plaster (on the top). I think the double layer of drywall on the bottom is because the stairs used to go up here, so when they took them out and turned it into a closet they had to work with a lack of plaster in the lower part.
breaking through from the bedroom side
A couple days later, after removing the interior stud with a sawzall, re-installing the horizontal support across the top, and using plaster magic to hopefully prevent future delaminating where I cut away the plaster. Look how nice the bedroom floor looks!

I also stripped, sanded, and primed the door frame, although now I’m regretting the latter and wishing I’d sanded it well enough to stain it instead. (Not regretting it enough to redo it though.) There is still a ways to go on this project as I write in mid-November, even though these pictures were taken in late August. I did fix up the exterior door surround, mostly, with drywall strips, corner bead, and joint compound, but there are some finishing steps that haven’t been done. The door surround still needs cleaning up on the interior, and since the door I’m putting there is going to change its swing, I have to either learn how to do that or get someone else to do it (I think it involves chiseling new depressions for hinges on the frame.) It needs a threshold. And finally of course we’ll have to actually hang the door and some trim.

4. Got the bedroom painted and a bed put together and moved some furniture in! No pictures because I haven’t taken any yet. I think at this point I’ll wait to take them until some trim is up and the whole thing is less of a godawful mess/furniture dumping ground.

5. Got the mudroom ceiling framed out and insulated and hung a beadboard ceiling (pictured halfway through, but the beadboard is all up now and the drywall is taped and mudded, just waiting for trim-out and paint)

6. Got the clawfoot tub taken out of upstairs (it is going to a good home) and a couch taken up

going down
Going up

7. Experimented with hiring a scissor lift to work on scraping and painting the soffits and trim. This was a very worthwhile learning experience; I probably won’t do it again at this house because the spaces are too tight, but it was very useful when it did work and I probably got about half of what I needed to do done. In April I will probably try scaffolding to get at the rest. A bucket lift (like a cherry picker) is also an option, although it would be way more expensive. TBD — definitely done with exterior work for the year now.

No pics of me on the lift, but the one in the middle, taken at my friends’ house, shows what it looks like extended.
The same section of trim before (massively alligatored); during (post-scraping with speedheater); and after a coat of oil-based primer. I got caught by the weather and just didn’t have time to get two coats of proper paint on the trim, so the primer is going to have to hold it over the winter.


9. Went to Chicago and bought a staircase

10. Learned all about shellac! Did you know that shellac flakes are an excretion of a lac bug, native to various parts of southeast Asia? And that it’s nontoxic and used to coat pills and candy? And that it dissolves in alcohol, so your brush will soften up again if you soak it in the shellac can after it dries and hardens? After some experimentation, I ended up deciding to refinish the four downstairs doors with a coat of a darker brown stain, three coats of amber shellac, and then two rubbed in coats of finish products, one that has abrasives in it to move the finish towards gloss, and a final coat of beeswax-based polish. Except for the stain (which is necessary because the shellac on its own was too orange) it all smells amazing, and it’s all very easy to work with. I’m really satisfied with how the doors are coming out, and I think I’m going to strip the jambs all the way and do them too even though it’s more work than just stripping enough off that I could repaint them.

one of the downstairs doors, before; how they look stripped (in the back) and with just a layer of shellac; and how they look after all the layers have gone on. I think they’re probably pine, possibly fir. Something soft and inexpensive, anyway. But they look like a million bucks with the stain, shellac, and wax finishes.

11. On a whim hired my neighbor’s yard guy to clear out the various tree limbs I took down while I had the scissor lift, plus a bunch of other random vegetation that grew up over the summer while I wasn’t paying any mind, plus a bunch of leftover tree bits from when my friend took down a couple of smaller pines last winter. Probably overpaid, don’t care, great decision making.

Planning a raised bed in the newly cleared out space to the right there along the fence.

12. Other miscellanea: hired someone to take down a tree I couldn’t handle myself; bought a bunch of exterior trim; (with Charity) had a very long and sweaty afternoon/evening pulling the remainder of the screws out of the upstairs floor in preparation for having it sanded, as well as clearing the floors upstairs by stuffing all the other random things up there into closets, and replacing (this was C) some subflooring that was just plywood with planks from the attic; and taking down plaster from the ex-bathroom wall that I thought was just too damaged to save. It was not only crumbling and delaminating in some places, but was also covered with adhesive from the fake tile panels that had been glued to it — those are the black bands in the photo below — and I would either have had to do the world’s best skim coating job; demo the whole thing back to the studs; or do what I decided to do after a few months of vacillating, which was gently knock out the plaster and leave the lath in place in the hopes that I can drywall over it. It’s holding in the blown in insulation, so if the lath comes down all of that will also need to be replaced and the pain in the ass level of the project will go up significantly. That said, if I still do end up having to gut this wall at this point, the worst is already over — the plaster is the dustiest and heaviest. Lath is super easy to pull off and insulation, while itchy and bulky, is at least lightweight. And it went really smoothly and quickly thanks to some friends showing up — I think we only worked about forty minutes, including the cleanup.

Plaster removal crew doing an album cover pose partway through

Note, as I type this I’m thinking it through, and maybe I should go ahead and pull down the rest of it. A new window is eventually going in about where Janna is standing at the right of the picture, and it would certainly be easier to frame that if the wall is down to the studs. Enough to make it worth having to pull everything else out and down to the trash, and also to make it worth having to re-insulate the whole wall? Maybe, maybe not.

This is super long, so later I’ll do a second catchup post about all the kitchen vacillating and backtracking that’s been going on.

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