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WELL, the deed is done. A couple of weeks ago I set aside my shame and came clean with pictures of my upstairs bathroom, and I think we can all agree it was bad. If it wasn’t the most embarrassing room in my house, it was certainly high on the list, and only slowly getting worse and worse the longer I tried to just turn a blind eye and make it work. Exhibit A:
I still kind of can’t believe I posted this haunting photo to the wilds of the Internet, but then again, yes I can. All these years of blogging have really messed with my sense of what’s appropriate for public consumption, to the point that somehow I think this behavior of mass-traumatizing my readers is OK? SORRY. This was the kind of space that most reasonable people would probably consider a total gut-job, myself included—salvaging the couple of remaining nice fixtures and starting over with…everything else. I don’t have the luxury of time or money to take that on right now—or in the closely foreseeable future, really—but I just couldn’t take it anymore and something had to be done quickly and inexpensively and with minimal upheaval. So I done it!
OH HEYYYYYYY. AM I REDEEMED? CAN WE BE FRIENDS AGAIN? I’d like to put this bathroom-based drama behind us. I’m not the same without you.
Let me show you around. I like, really want to.
Various people offered that the issue with my leaky old shower valve was worn out washers, which might have been the case, but the whole thing was so corroded that I couldn’t even pull it apart to access them. I had to cut it out in pieces with an angle grinder! I was more than happy to take this opportunity to swap to a single-lever shower faucet and new tub spout, though, particularly since I have access to the plumbing from the other side of the wall.
There’s a HUGE range in prices out there for tub and shower trim, but I went with the Kohler Coralais valve trim (less than $20!!) and the coordinating chrome tub spout with diverter. Both totally nice! Admittedly I would have been happy with literally anything other than what I had, but I was impressed that these inexpensive options exist that don’t look or feel cheap or builder-grade-y. The most expensive part by far of this upgrade was actually the Kohler Rite-Temp valve that goes in the wall, although often you can replace the trim without having to replace the entire valve. But in this case, WORTH IT. Having a single, smooth lever that delivers consistently-tempered water to my showerhead and out onto my bare butt…this is luxury, people!
Installing it took a little head-scratching because I am not in fact a plumber, but I got the new components roughed in and then it was time for tile!
So. Pretty much the last thing I wanted to do for this project was start ripping out walls and ceilings—I know it might not seem like a big deal, but inherent in that decision would have been addressing any potential issues with framing behind the walls, followed by new insulation, followed by all new drywall and cementboard and vapor barrier and…that is not a quick refresh. That’s a straight-up renovation that we have previously established is for SOME OTHER TIME. So I will be doing some things that are not necessarily advisable for your typical bathroom remodel, but I think are fine for a shorter-term quick n’ dirty solution.
FOR INSTANCE, see above. Behind the formica shower surround and the layers of peeling paint and nonsense, the plaster walls were in decent shape. Before tiling, I slapped up a coat of PlasterWeld, which is really designed to bond new plaster to existing surfaces. Why? Not sure. Saw the can in the basement. Grabbed the can. Figured it couldn’t hurt.
Part 1 of my plan was adding filler strips to the sides to make the cabinet fit snugly into that space, and then covering the top and tub-facing side with cementboard for tile. I did this with scrap wood and a scrap piece of cementboard. USING. STUFF. UP!
Could I have made this cabinet myself? Technically, sure, fine, but did I want to? NOPE. That was a project I could happily avoid by just buying something stock. I have to remind myself that not every single thing needs to be as complicated as possible. I’m outta plywood anyway!
TILE TIME!!! So here’s the deal. The lower half of the room is all Keene’s cement, presumably original to this bathroom, that’s in a 6×6 running bond pattern. I love that choice for a vintage or antique bathroom—classic, simple, and cheap!—but I felt like putting up actual 6×6 tile next to the Keene’s cement 6×6 “tile” would feel weird and bad. Ditto on the other most obviously appropriate solution, subway tile. I felt like it needed to be something really different in scale and texture, but at the same time nothing too overpowering because I still want the fabulous sink to be the star of the show. ALSO it had to be relatively inexpensive and preferably easy to install because someday in the likely distant future I’d like to rip out this tub which will prompt ripping out the tile as well.
So naturally I sprung for marble.
Kidding! It’s faux!!! This feels very out of character because, not that you asked, but I’m generally not about ceramic or porcelain tile that’s supposed to look like something else. There’s just so much nice tile out there that faux-wood or faux-stone tile usually feels to me like a missed opportunity to do something so much more interesting? I also grew up with unconvincing 90s faux-stone ceramic floors…you know the kind, where all the tiles are exactly the same, and the tile installer is supposed to rotate them to create the illusion of randomness and variation?
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a new world. These things have improved by leaps and bounds. I found this 12″ x 24″ True Porcelain Arabescato Gold polished tile at Lowe’s and I think it’s pretty great looking. With natural stone I tend to like a honed finish—also an option here, and cheaper—but I thought the polished ones looked more lifelike. I think there are 8(?) different tiles—enough that you don’t get that phony repetitive look that happens when they’re all identical—and there’s nice depth and subtlety and variation and unless you’re standing 6 inches away and REALLY looking, it’s amazingly convincing. I kind of can’t believe how much I love it. And at $3/square foot, the price is awesome. I find this to be true of Lowe’s tile selection generally, by the way—they have SO many great options that look high-end but are totally budget-friendly. I’m kind of a big fan of whoever handles the tile department internally and think we could probs be friends. *blushes and runs away*
Part of the appeal for me with the large format tile was I thought it would be so fast to install! Ha! It’s just as complicated as smaller tile, just in a different way. I’m really glad I took a little time before I just dove into tiling to plan out my runs to avoid ending up with any little tiny slivers of tile. I hate that! So I drew this very technical sketch and then dove right in.
I’m not honestly sure if I’ve ever worked with porcelain tile before?? The tile itself is harder than ceramic, and cutting the hole for the valve was unexpectedly challenging. After burning through a 4″ carbide-tipped hole saw, I went and bought a diamond grit jigsaw blade which—along with a lot of water from a spray bottle—did the trick pretty quickly. I thought I’d have the whole thing tiled in a couple hours, so naturally it took about that long to get this hole cut and get the first one into place. Live and learn! Things got much easier from there.
I picked up this Spin Doctor spacer/leveling system on my way out of Lowe’s with my boxes of tile “just in case” and they were a LIFESAVER. It can be hard to get large format tiles to sit level and flush with each other under normal circumstances, and particularly when the walls/floor underneath aren’t especially even (like here!) and these are ingeniously designed to fix that problem. If you’re installing large format tiles, I HIGHLY recommend these—you will thank me later. I went with the 1/16″ spacer, although there’s a 1/8″ option as well. I like a small grout line! Unfortunately I can’t find a direct link to these with the rest of the tile spacers on the Lowe’s website, but they’re definitely at my local store so keep an eye out.
By the way, I had a bunch of half-bags of thinset from various projects that I was planning to use up for this, but I’d forgotten that large format tile needs large format thinset! So I bought MAPEI Large Format Floor and Wall Thinset, which is made for tiles this size. I also used a 1/2″ x 1/2″ square-notch trowel to spread it onto the wall. The bag of thinset will usually tell you what size trowel to use depending on how big your tile is. Don’t fear! The answers you seek are right in front of you! Calm down!
The next day, I removed the spacers and scraped out any thinset that squeezed through the grout joints. Then I used MAPEI Flexcolor pre-mixed grout in the Warm Gray color, which I thought went nicely with the tile. Not too dark, not too light. Cool story. You pay a premium for the convenience of pre-mixed grout rather than mixing it yourself, but it’s nice to speed things up and avoid more mess in situations like this.
Moving! Right! Along! With the shower surround tile taken care of, I moved onto the rest of the walls. In some places, the walls easily scraped down to bare plaster, but the paint was more stubborn in other areas. Cracks abounded, old repair work had not exactly contributed to a smooth and even surface…they’re old plaster walls, basically.
Enter, Anaglypta! Do we already know about Anaglypta? It’s cool stuff—wallpaper with an embossed pattern on it that’s been in production since Victorian times! And guess who has a great selection of it? LOWE’S! Color me impressed. Anaglypta is thick and durable, and a great solution for covering imperfections and cracks and stuff without having to do a ton of repair work first. It’s meant to be painted, which can be anything from regular wall paint to a more elaborate faux finish that really highlights the design. So pretty and old-fashioned! There’s a pretty big range in prices, so OF COURSE my favorite—the Brewster pattern— was one of the most expensive options. So it goes. I ordered it anyway because I lack self-control!
To prep the walls, I did some light and quick skim-coating with 45-minute joint compound just to fill in any major problem areas and feather out ridges where stubborn paint met bare plaster. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Then I primed with clear Peel Stop primer, which I had in the basement from another project, to hopefully ensure that nothing continues to peel over time. I can’t tell you if that was the right thing to do, but it seemed like it at the time?
Exciting! So nice to just make all those imperfections disappear. I used this Universal Wallpaper paste, which I still had leftover from when I wallpapered my office (which later became my laundry room) several years ago. The installation isn’t anything too different from regular wallpaper, except that you want to use a rigid bristle brush to smooth it rather than a flat smoothing tool which can damage the paper by flattening the texture. It took me about 4 hours working by myself to get it all hung, which could have been sped up significantly with a second set of hands. Mekko and Bungee were zero help, unfortunately.
After the wallpaper was up, time for some quick millwork! I made baseboards out of standard 1×6 stock, and then used my router table to mill a 1/2″ bead, which I ripped down on my table saw and then nailed to the top of the boards—replicating the simple and modest baseboard molding found in the closets of my house. For the chair rail, I used
If you were unfortunate enough to catch my last post, you will be relieved to know that I started work on my bathroom! Even though I keep talking about this as a “small” renovation, a “light refresh,” a “quick and cheap fix,” I’m not sure this room has any truly quick fixes. You’ve seen it. It’s rough. As a result, the entire house has been thrown into total chaos and immediate disarray. This phenomenon seems to happen every time, and each time I regard it with a renewed sense of wonder. It doesn’t seem like this task would require every tool and supply I’ve ever owned, and yet…all the DIY paraphernalia now scattered around the upstairs begs to differ.
I think the lesson broadly might be that bathrooms are no joke, especially if you only have one. They just involve more than, say, a bedroom, plus they’re small which makes the work awkward and uncomfortable. When you’re working on a living space, it’s easy enough to just avoid living in that space until the work is done…but it is not easy to avoid going to the bathroom. I, for one, typically have to do it several times a day. Which is why I’m definitely glad I’m not gutting this bathroom right now, and also already cannot wait for this to be over. Ha!
GOOD. BYE. FORMICA. You have served valiantly as the shower surround but it is time for you to depart. I got lots and lots of helpful suggestions for the bathroom after my last post (thank you!!! y’all are smart.), which ranged from “try to work with the Formica!” to “OMG KILL IT WITH FIRE,” and I fell more into that latter camp. It was barely clinging to the walls so taking it down was a no-brainer.
Next, I had to get rid of that dumb wall at the end of the tub. “Had to” is strong wording—I wanted to. REALLY wanted to. If the bathroom were a littttttttle bit wider, it probably would have made more sense to keep, but that space it created was just so narrow and deep and awkward and dark and skeevy, I just wanted it gone. The wall was built whenever this tub was put in, and the side facing into the shower was made up of scraps of plywood which were then skim-coated in joint compound and then covered in Formica. Fancy!
IS IT BEAUTIFUL YET? Yikes. The plaster walls under the Formica are luckily in very good condition, all things considered.
By the way, while we’re taking in this spa-like view, several of you suggested/insisted on changing the swing of the door, and you know what? You’re absolutely right! I even noted the awkward swing of the door 6 years ago when first writing about this bathroom, but completely forgot it bothered me over the course of the intervening years. It’s funny how you just get used to things. But now that it’s been brought to my attention again, it’s all I can think about…add it to the list.
WELL, WELL, WELL, WHAT HAVE WE HERE? Removing the wall at the end of the tub allowed me to see under the tub for the first time, and I saw wood floors! And not, like, wide and gappy and soft wood subfloors that I can see from below, but nice finished hardwood. It also allowed me to see that these hardwood floors were residing under only one thin layer of plywood subfloor and vinyl tile, not the several layers of mayhem I suspected I’d find. INTERESTING.
So, I had PLANNED to just peel up the existing vinyl tiles, do whatever I needed to do to prep the plywood subfloors, and put down new peel-and-stick vinyl tiles. I’d found these Stainmaster black “obsidian” large-scale hex tiles at Lowe’s, which seemed like they’d be fast and affordable at about $2/square foot, and they’re cute! It’s nice to see something different than 12″x12″ vinyl—AND, these are GROUTABLE? What is this sorcery? The product shots in finished rooms look pretty great and I’d bought 5 boxes and was prepared and weirdly stoked to go for it.
Upon seeing the wood floors…I was still prepared to go for it? A glimpse of hardwood is not the same as seeing the whole room of hardwood, and someone probably covered them up for reason, like rot, that I don’t want to face. Plus, removing the plywood subfloor would entail temporarily removing that sink—or somehow just its legs, which rest on the floor—a prospect that strikes complete and utter fear into my heart.
I’m not sure I can stress this last point enough. The sink is super beautiful and old and theoretically valuable and fragile and I cannot and will not risk it for the purposes of this renovation. I don’t even really understand how it’s mounted, particularly the backsplash piece which I think might be mortared to the wall like a big tile. Someday, I will have to face this, I suppose. Today? Hell no. This is also why I didn’t even really consider tiling the floor with ceramic or porcelain tile because that would add thickness to the floor and necessitate removing and re-mounting the sink a little higher. There is seriously nothing in this world I would rather do less than fuck with that sink.
In addition to the sink, there’s also a radiator in the room and that presents kind of the same problem. It would be nice if radiators were easy to remove and put back on a whim, but it’s a pain and I wanted to avoid that as well.
So now I am not even one full day into this DIY event and at a crossroads that is causing IMMEASURABLE stress. I am not at all dramatic, why do you ask?
Don’t ask me how; I couldn’t tell you. But I got the floor out. Lots of careful cutting with my handy Dremel MultiMax MM50 to get the subfloor into pieces small enough to shimmy out from underneath the legs, which can be carefully maneuvered this way and that without the whole thing crashing down. It was intense. But everyone survived, most importantly the sink.
ANYWAY, floors!! For the most part, the floors were in pretty great shape. There was a little water damage near the toilet and a big patch where plumbing had been run behind the sink, but overall…I’ve seen much worse!
Then I started sanding them, and…what’s this?! The floors in my house are all yellow pine or fir—both very common wood types for flooring here—but I think these are…maple?! Huh! I almost never see maple floors in this region. Interesting!
By the way, even though I just refinished that little floor in my closet, I WAY underestimated the amount of sanding here. Maple is so much harder than pine. I found that if I hand-scraped the old finish (shellac, I think?) before sanding, it went a little faster and saved me from having to replace the sanding pads every 5 seconds, but it was still slow and kind of awful to do with just a little orbital sander.
I took up the old patch behind the sink, which I think was made of shipping pallets? Super rough and uneven wood; not worth saving.
I didn’t have any maple, but I did have boards from the yellow pine patch that I pulled out of the living room when I installed the faux fireplace several years ago in there! The boards are the same width as the maple, and this floor is so full of “character” anyway that a conspicuous patch job doesn’t really bother me. I actually think it’s kind of charming?
So do you, admit it.
NOT BAD, RIGHT? I loved the light tone of the unfinished maple, so I used some leftover Bona NaturalSeal before applying poly. The NaturalSeal has a little bit of white pigment in it, which lets the wood maintain an unfinished look rather than darkening with polyurethane. Then I followed up with two coats of Bona Traffic HD in Satin, which I also had on hand in the basement.
Oh HELLO, floors! I am very pleased. I know that wood floors aren’t everyone’s ideal for a bathroom, but I am more than happy to have these in here. Plus, aside from some sanding pads, they were free! I’m sure I will still have no problem spending my $1,000 budget, but being able to return the vinyl floor tile definitely helps.
A couple more random and possibly interesting things about the bathroom! I didn’t notice that it wasn’t showing up in photos, but the lower half of the walls in this bathroom are not smooth plaster, and they aren’t painted tile either—they’re Keene’s cement! Keene’s cement is a very hard and durable plaster developed in 1838 that was often used in public spaces and other areas needing a hard-wearing surface. I think it maintained popularity until about the 1920s or so, but it’s still in production! My Keene’s cement looks like 6×6 tiles in a running bond pattern. A lot of you guys recommended simple subway tile or something similar for the shower surround—which would be perfect and really affordable—but I got super hung up on having real tile right up next to this more subtle fake tile walls. Maybe that’s dumb? It just seemed…not right. I also got concerned that the toilet, sink, and tub are all different shades of glazed white, and I’d regret adding yet another shade of glazed white. Maybe that’s also dumb? Regardless, I’m taking the opportunity to do something different and kind of unlike me and I think I’m into it.
Anyway! Also of note in that image above: that wall was covered in Formica, so I’d never seen what was hiding underneath—which looks distinctly like years of someone painting around a radiator! A tall and narrow radiator tucked into this corner rather than this lower/longer one that’s here now must have been nice. I wonder what happened to it. It’s cool to see the original beige-y paint on that Keene’s cement, though. Dare I say, I like it?
Also, I took down the mirror to get to work on the walls! The backing is embossed with this “The Brasscrafters” logo, which appears to have gotten its start in 1899. They made all the bathroom things: mirrors, soap dishes, shelves, towel rods, hooks, toilet paper holders, and so on—I really enjoyed scrolling through this catalog from the 20s and finding my mirror!
The clips that hold the mirror backing into place dates the patent at 1904, although it looks like these mirrors were in production for a few decades so I’m not sure when mine was actually made/installed.
I don’t see any manufacturer stamp on the sink itself, but a commenter named Margaret pointed out that it sure looks a helluva lot like a JL Mott sink, which some googling confirmed. Look at this one, which they say was made in 1892! Cool cool.
The shelf brackets are stamped “S. Sternau & Co Brooklyn NY,” which was started in 1893 and later became Sterno, the brand name that’s synonymous with their signature product, canned heat!
Would you like to know something insane? OK I’LL TELL YOU. Last Friday was the anniversary of the closing on my house. 3 whole years!!!!
Just kidding, it’s 4 years.
Actually wait, 5 years.
Fuck. It’s 6 years. I have some feelings about it, as you might expect.
The very first time I came to Kingston, it was for a weekend with friends. We stayed in an Airbnb only a few blocks from the house I’d later go on to buy. Some sleuthing revealed that the owners (now friends of mine—something that tends to happen when you move to a place like this!) were a couple of young guys who had bought the house less than a year prior to our stay. The house was very nice, and every part of it had seemingly received some level of attention to prepare it for comfortable occupancy. Walls had been skimmed and painted, furniture and window treatments installed, and the oak floors refinished to a pleasant shade of medium brown.
So it’s with some cringing embarrassment that I’ll now admit to feeling like the renovation was nice enough, but…could have been better. Freshly painted acoustic tiles still covered some original plaster ceilings, new electrical work had been run in exposed plastic channels rather than behind walls and ceilings, and inexpensive floating laminate flooring hid what was likely layers of old flooring in the kitchen. The bathrooms had been updated with a sheet of linoleum flooring, that unconvincing variety meant to look like natural stone, and the chipped and broken 1930s wall tiles had been painted a deep navy—including the mastic that was revealed when some of them had fully detached—rather than restored or replaced. All of this struck me as kind of a bummer. It was all fine but also not what I would have done. I held this belief with all the authority of somebody whose restoration experience started and ended with spending two years fixing up a 600 square foot Brooklyn apartment. If I’d only had a house, I could show these people how it was really done. Thoroughly. Lovingly. Do it right or don’t do it at all.
Sitting here today, I wish I could go back and slap that judge-y expression right off my dumb fucking face. What these owners had done was not only practical but smart: in most cases they’d done just enough to make the house cozy and clean, which in turn allowed them to begin renting it, which in turn augmented their income, which in turn allowed them to save for the renovations they’d complete down the line. I just hadn’t given them the benefit of the doubt that they had further plans beyond what I could see. Eventually they put in a very nice brand new kitchen. They renovated the bathrooms in a classic and elegant style befitting of a Victorian home. Having a “good enough” kind of solution in the interim took the pressure off to do it all at once, and allowed them to do something within mere months that I have not been able to comfortably do for six years: to stop apologizing. To host overnight guests and dinner parties. To have the flexibility to put the renovation on hold because everything is already fine.
To be fair: comparing your renovation to your perception of someone else’s is generally unhelpful. All houses are different. While their bathroom tiles on the first floor had been damaged from 80 years of use, mine had been ripped from the wall because they were spattered with human remains. While their exterior work mostly entailed repainting and gardening, mine has involved tearing down multiple additions and reimagining entire elevations. It’s been difficult—to say the least—to prioritize all the many moving parts of renovating this house, and I’m positive I’ve erred from time to time in that agenda-setting. I’m sure I will continue to, because it’s hard. Like everyone else, I’m at the mercy of time and money and weather and a million other challenges big and small with a project of this scope.
And yet: SIX. YEARS. And it’s hard to imagine there aren’t at least another six ahead of me, and probably six more after that. It’s a slog. A satisfying, gratifying, at times exciting, sometimes fun, difficult-to-explain, always educational, and frequently humbling slog. Nothing in my house brings this into sharper relief than my bathroom.
Yes, I have a bathroom. I showed it to you once, almost 6 years ago, when it looked like this. In preparation to sell, obviously someone had done some rushed repair work on the walls and put in a new drywall ceiling, which was slowly being ruined by the still-leaking roof above. Given that the downstairs bathroom was basically a crime scene, this one didn’t seem so bad. As is my habit, I was blinded by a few things.
FOR EXAMPLE, THIS SINK. I mean. There were so many parts of this house that I loved at first sight, but this sink was high on that list. The idea that someone else might buy the house and rip it out made me even more determined to make sure it was mine. Sometimes when people are over I like to joke that I hope the dump will accept it when I get around to replacing it, just to watch the reaction. It’s endlessly fun to me and only me.
Above the sink is this sweet little glass shelf and this beautiful mirror. Of course I can’t be sure, but I’d guess that the sink/shelf/mirror combo hasn’t changed since the bathroom was first installed around 1890.
Where did the 1890 date come from? This hurts, you guys. This bathroom had its original toilet when I bought the house. Most toilet tank lids have a manufacturing date stamped on the underside, and I’m pretty sure this one said 1890. The plumbing wasn’t turned on until a few hours before we had to start living here, so we didn’t realize that none of it really worked—the waste line running from this bathroom to the basement had an impressive crack all the way down it, both toilets in the house leaked…I don’t know, it was a bad scene that we needed to deal with ASAP. At the time, I was precious about plenty of things (see: sink) but not an old toilet—old toilets are finicky and inefficient and a little gross, right?!
DAMNIT, DANIEL. Let’s pretend that the base and the tank were irreparably cracked or something, which might actually be true. But what I absolutely know is true is that I went out and bought a new toilet—a totally basic and inexpensive Kohler—and oversaw plumbers as they removed this one. Which, after lots of grunting and moaning and jostling, ended with one of the guys taking a SLEDGHAMMER to the base to get it out. It was stuck down to that little painted platform (probably installed to cover some rotted flooring—I don’t want to know) with some crazy adhesive putty stuff and they just could not get it to budge.
Hindsight, man. It hurts sometimes. I’m not trying to tell you how to run your life (lol yes I am), but if you have an original toilet…toilets haven’t changed that much since their inception, except sadly in the way they look, and can usually be retrofitted with new parts to bring them back into perfect working order. Pretty much without exception, toilets made before the 1950s are SO pretty, and I really don’t quite understand why nobody is reproducing these elegant old designs. There are decent options I’m aware of for historic renovations—as in, they might fit in more seamlessly than something decidedly modern—but they really don’t look like any actual old toilet I’ve seen. Someone ought to do something about this issue of grave social concern.
Enough about the toilet. I can’t think about it anymore. The nice old shitter with the wall-mounted tank is long gone and that’s that. Keep an eye out for very old toilets because I want to put one back someday.
Which brings us to the tub! This is very obviously not the original tub. It’s probably from the 1960s? But it is enameled cast iron and 100% decent. Never in a million years would I pick it for this bathroom, but there’s nothing wrong with it.
Except for the hot and cold valves, which both leak like crazy when they’re on. I have done exactly nothing to try to identify the source of the leak or improve the situation, in spite of the wild temperature fluctuations that occur during most showers, or the way you have to avoid standing in a certain spot lest the leak from the hot valve scald your delicate ankles.
Also, note the shower surround. That is not tile. That is certainly not a slab. That is…Formica!! In fact it’s the exact same Formica that clad the first floor kitchen’s countertops when I moved in.
I don’t think this has ever been what Formica is for, so on one hand it’s held up impressively well—by which I mean, it’s still clinging to the wall. On the other hand, it’s fucking disgusting and slathered in generous layers of caulk and a light spattering of mold and…sigh, I am a trash human.
The floor, by the way, is a vinyl tile that looks kind of like terrazzo. I am a life-long terrazzo fanatic, and there’s actually something I kind of like about the floor except that it’s in this bathroom. The colors are so aggressively unpleasant and the tiles are lifting off the plywood subfloor and a couple of them have broken. CHIC!
And so. After 6 years of living, the bathroom looks like this. It’s funny—I recently told a houseguest with absolute certainty that the walls have always been exactly as peel-y as they appear in this photo, but looking back I can see that isn’t true. Which really speaks to the extent to which I’ve truly turned a blind eye to this room, to the point that I didn’t notice that it was, evidently, actively degrading around me.
Very small efforts have been made. Very small things have happened by necessity. Note how there is some shelving crammed in there between the tub and the wall. A colorful shower curtain is trying and failing very hard to make things mildly cheerful. I hung a couple hooks for towels.
What is happening in this image? Well. There’s a crumpled fabric bin thing on top of the toilet tank to hold excess stuff because there’s not enough storage in here. That little print next to the shelf is concealing some large holes I made almost 6 years ago, when I was trying to install an outlet and decided a 1″ spade bit was a good choice for test-drilling. First I ran into the cast iron vent pipe. Then I ran into the dead gas line for the original lighting. Undeterred, I then ran into a stud. All with this massive drill bit! I have learned some things, thank god.
The larger print “covers” a hilariously awkwardly placed hole where I did successfully install the outlet, only to remove it a couple of years later when the electric to this room got eliminated in the course of other work. That’s when I ran new electric but in exposed conduit this time, since I didn’t want to take out walls or ceilings. Since there’s no active electric currently in the old upstairs kitchen—the room behind that wall—I stuck a power strip through the hilariously awkward hole in the wall to allow me to power a few tools.
It’s called elegance, look it up.
The light over the sink is a Radar Sconce from Schoolhouse Electric, bequeathed to me by my mother who ordered it for her place but then couldn’t use it. It has got to be the worst-looking installation of what’s otherwise a nice light in history. I’m sorry, Schoolhouse. You make nice things and I don’t deserve them.
The window is nice. The top sash contains the only stained glass in the house, and the bottom sash is one big piece of glass rather than divided like all my other windows. I put a piece of vinyl window frosting over it for privacy.
Note that the formica continues around this side of the room on the lower half of the walls. I got this little cabinet from IKEA, which turns out to be cute but nearly worthless when it comes to storage.
SO ANYWAY. Now you have an intimate and detailed glimpse of the space where I have cleaned my body and wiped my butt for the past 6 years. I have unburdened myself and now you get to live with this very likely unwanted information. No matter how much I clean this bathroom, it always looks and feels dirty, and I’m truly mortified whenever someone other than myself needs to use it.
“You didn’t shower, right?” This is what I asked my friend Anna, the cleanest half-Swede and best caulk artist I know, recently over coffee after an overnight stay.
“Oh no,” she replied. “I’m afraid of your shower,” seeming to imply that she would have showered, had the conditions looked less like a staph infection waiting to happen. I cherish this moment because it was so perfectly honest. A polite stranger might lie about forgetting their shampoo or liking to shower at night, but a true friend gives you the straight dope. I love you, but you’re living like a wild animal.
It’s hard to imagine that over the course of six years, never has this bathroom floated to the top of a priority list. You might be thinking why not just…and believe me, I have the same thought all the time. But if you’ll excuse some brief self-compassion, it really just hasn’t been a priority. As-is, it’s ugly as hell but it works. It successfully performs all the basic functions of a bathroom—whereas at various times the house has been without heat, hot water, a kitchen, a bedroom, various exterior walls…there’s just always been something that at least felt more pressing or essential.
At the same time, my hesitance to make any improvements to the bathroom has probably been informed by the kind of thinking I described at the beginning of this post: do it right or don’t do it at all. Whether or not the bathroom would eventually need a full renovation has never really been up for debate, so I have essentially been waiting for that full renovation and avoiding anything less. And I really do mean avoiding—I mean, LOOK at those walls. Don’t you want to just yank those peeling parts off?? Can you imagine the prolonged exercise in self-control of leaving it alone? Because I know myself well enough to know this: once I start, I will be powerless to stop. And then I have opened another can of worms when I’m already juggling the dozen cans of worms open in front of me. A small gesture like scraping the walls or re-caulking the tub will inevitably spiral, and it’s a dangerous and slippery slope into total chaos from there. And so: blinders, on.
The problem, of course, with putting this stuff off “until the big renovation” is finally, to me at least, evident: that big renovation is a long way off. Years, not months. And I just cannot anymore. The bathroom is gross and makes me feel bad, and unfortunately it will not improve on its own no matter how much I nag it. So I’m going to do…something.
I’m giving myself a week. A week to deal with the floors, the walls, the shitty plumbing, the lack of storage, the bad lighting, the formica shower surround…all of it. I am absolutely determined to keep all walls and ceilings intact—once the plaster goes, then so does the brick nogging, and then I’m dealing with potential structural issues (no evidence of this, but…ya know) and insulation and vapor barriers and cement board and then what the hell, let’s rip out the tub, and THAT IS NOT HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. I’m also giving myself a thousand dollars, by which I mean my corporate overlords at Lowe’s have agreed to provide exactly this sum in materials and I will gladly take it and very likely spend it all. It sounds like a lot of money but I’m sure it’ll go fast.
Just as I haven’t expended significant effort on fixing up the bathroom, I have not allowed myself to put significant thought into what I would do with it if I could! So…I dunno. Wish me luck? Tell me what to do? My current plan is no plan, so…tell me your thoughts.
Making the closet all fancy and functional made me really want to turn my attention back to some loose ends in the bedroom, including a long-standing plan to install a mantel on this wall you see before you. Is it a priority? Not at all. But I’m working on various other things right now, so chipping away at a small project like this at home helps me feel like things are still progressing while my attention is elsewhere, ya know?
Originally, there was a chimney behind that wall (now removed to make space for the laundry machines!), and a big vent-hole-shaped patch job on the upper part of the wall leads me to believe there was some kind of stove in here (coal, I think?) to heat the room in the winter. This was before the house was fitted for radiators, and to be honest I’m a little unclear about how this stuff was set up.
Anyway. See how the baseboard is patched in down there, to the right of the closet door? And it doesn’t really match?
Yeah. I also see that. I have seen it everyday for years. I wake up in the morning looking at that terrible patch job and drift off to sleep looking at it, too. I didn’t fix it back when I renovated the bedroom a few years ago, thinking I’ll do something about that. Someday.
Also problematic: those two very awkward outlets I had the electrician add years ago. At the time, I thought this was the most natural spot to put a bed, and having outlets just behind the headboard for lamps and phone chargers makes a lot of sense…but now they just look stupid. This was also before I found out that outlets in the baseboards—where they were usually placed old houses when they were first retrofitted for electric—were still allowable. I love baseboard outlets!
If you have a little electrical know-how, moving an outlet from a wall and into a baseboard isn’t too challenging, especially if the wiring is coming up from below rather than down from above. In the process, I cut off the supply to the outlet on the left so it could be eliminated, traced the new box on the baseboard, and got to work cutting out the hole!
OK, so I have a new tool friend to introduce you to. She goes by Dremel Multi-Max MM50, and she’s great. I’ve mentioned before the importance of having an oscillating saw for all sorts of common renovation tasks (cutting clean lines in plaster/drywall, under a door casing to install new flooring, cutting out hardwood flooring to patch holes, cutting through lath, shaving foam insulation before installing walls…). I finally bought one 4-ish years ago, and it’s an indispensable part of my toolkit—right there with the drill and the hammer and the pry bar. Up until now I’ve been working with an older Porter Cable model that I’ve always liked, so when Lowe’s asked if I’d give this Dremel version a try for this project, I agreed to try it but told them that I liked my current one and, basically, this better be good.
It is good! Dremel nailed it. The Multi-Max MM50 comes with a bunch of blades and accessories to get you started and even a nifty little carrying bag, so at $129 it’s a great value for everything that comes in the box. Those accessories add up fast when you have to buy them all individually, and having them included is a nice way to try out a bunch of them beforehand—some will prove more useful than others depending on what you’re doing, and you may find that you just like certain ones better than others as a matter of personal preference. So it’s nice to have a sampling.
If you’ve used another oscillating saw, you’ll notice a couple things right away with the Multi-Max MM50: the compact angled head (helpful for tight spaces!) and the motor. As you can see in the first photo in this post, the tool curves up at the end, which really helps with getting the cut you need when you’re up against a flat surface like the floor. It’s also just more comfortable and ergonomic to hold, which ultimately makes it safer to use since you aren’t putting your hands in awkward positions to do what you need to do.
The major, major difference between this multi-tool and all the ones I’ve used in the past is that it’s so smoooooth. It can be hard to control oscillating saws because they tend to vibrate a lot and jump all over the place, which is incredibly annoying when you’re trying to make clean, precise cuts (and when aren’t you, really?). I often end up with little knicks around where I was trying to cut that have to be filled later. Not so with the Dremel Multi-Max MM50! It was so easy to control that I could take photos with one hand while using the tool with the other, ha! I used this thing during every phase of this project and it made the work easier and faster, but also kept me from having to lug ALL the tools out since this little guy does so many things on its own. That’s a big deal when you’re trying to renovate in the room you sleep in!
After cutting out my rectangle, I drilled a drywall screw partway into the part of the wood I was removing and used my hammer to pry it out. From there, it was just a matter of pulling the cables through, inserting them through the back of a remodel box, and installing the remodel box into the baseboard. Then I just had to hook up the outlet, flip the power back on, and recheck my work to make sure I didn’t screw anything up. Success!
With the outlet out of the way, I assembled my supplies.
Almost two years ago now, I was driving down the road and passed by this little number. My first thought, of course, was WHY OH WHY OH WHY WOULD YOU TEAR THAT OUT? You can see a glimpse of the house it came out of in the background, which I’ve actually been inside, but that’s a whole different story. It’s spectacular and needs a ton of work. It dates from around 1800, but the interior details are very similar to my house and…anyway. I scurried home, measured, and was delighted to discover that the space I had was 4′ across, and this mantel was…4′ across. SOLD.
Welcome to my home, salvaged mantel. Now join the madness in this Hoard Room of Doom and I will call you when your time has come.
Almost a year later, I came across this random slab of marble at a yard sale. $10! I think I posted about this acquisition to Instagram stories to see if anyone had thoughts on what I could do with it. It’s 4′ wide and 16″ deep and…eventually someone suggested using it as a hearth. I think I said it was too small or something before realizing it’s actually…perfect for this someday-bedroom-fireplace-project. SORRY, SOMEONE. YOU ARE A GENIUS. THANK YOU FOR HAVING MY BACK.
The last piece of the puzzle was what to do with the large central opening in the mantel—you know, like where the fire would be. Since this is just a 2×4 partition wall, I definitely don’t have the depth for an actual firebox (it didn’t exist here originally, anyway), but still wanted to create the illusion of one. Otherwise it would just be a mantel tacked to the wall with drywall in the center—which you see a lot, by the way, in instances where fireplaces have been bricked up and plastered over in favor of more modern heat systems, but it always just looks to me like something that wants to be un-done and restored.
As it happens, this was the hardest thing to source because the fireplace opening is only 28″ across, and most of these cast iron surrounds are in the 30″-32″ range. On top of that, I needed to find one with a summer cover! The summer cover is that removable intricate metal grate that would have concealed the firebox in the summer when it wasn’t in constant use. Sometimes you can mix and match and create a pair that fits together, but I got lucky and found this matched set at a salvage place in town. I paid $125 for it. If you don’t have a salvage place at your disposal, places like eBay, Etsy, and online architectural salvage places are good for these kinds of parts, too.
This is totally the kind of project that is going to be a little different for everyone with lots of head-scratching and problem-solving along the way. That’s OK! There are no stakes! It’s called play, people! Have fun with it. My idea of fun is assembling a rag-tag collection of salvaged stuff and trying to make it all work nicely together. If your idea of fun is designing and building your own mantel from scratch, go for it! I’m not the boss of you!!
I removed the patched in baseboard. Even though we’re dealing with separate pieces, the amount of caulk and paint (and masking tape, it turned out!) between the two means that just going at it with a pry bar could carry the risk of damaging the original baseboard, which I was trying to preserve! Switching to the wood/metal blade, I just zipped the Multi-Max up the seams to break any bonds, which ended up including some unexpected nails driven in at an angle that attached the patch to the original board. Had I tried to just pry it off, I probably would have split the original baseboard and been so sad.
With the baseboard patch removed, I put the mantel in place and traced the shape of the firebox, where I’d be cutting out the plaster. I needed the extra depth to recess the metal fireplace surround enough for it to look right.
Switching to the drywall and wood blade, I went about cutting out the section of plaster I wanted to remove. So clean! I’ve had electricians make a REAL mess of plaster walls trying to run new lines or install electrical boxes with a hammer and a prayer, and now I insist that they use an oscillating saw for clean, easily-patchable cuts—even if it means borrowing mine. I’m really fun to have on a job site, according to me.
I put the mantel back into place, securing it temporarily to the wall with one screw. I pretty much dry-fitted things over and over again until it all worked.
Naturally, the floor in this room is rather sloped! I needed the left side to be about 1/2″ higher to make the mantel level, which means the right side could be 1/2″ lower and produce the same result.
I actually needed a slightly angled cut that would follow the slope of the floor rather than a perfect 90 degree cut. It worked nicely to place a piece of 1/2″ stock on the floor, and trace a line where it hit all the way around the part I needed to remove, and then just cut it out with the Multi-Max. Does that make sense? I switched back to the wood blade and zipped through it. This was approximately 900 times easier and faster than finagling this thing onto a pair of sawhorses and trying to do it with a circular saw.
Speaking of easy and fast: one of the major differences with these tools I haven’t mentioned is the ease of switching from one attachment to another. My first one actually needed a little allen wrench to change out the attachments—I MEAN, CAN YOU IMAGINE? Total pain. So easy to lose. Never again. The Multi-Max MM50, though, doesn’t need any tools—you just turn that knob on the top and press the blue button in the middle, put on a new blade, and turn the knob back to tighten. Nice! In fairness, my Porter Cable’s tension design for changing attachments is even more fast and seamless than the Dremel’s, but all-around this is still the better tool because of the aforementioned compact angled head and lack of vibration.
With the mantel leveled off, I put the marble hearth in place! It actually looked pretty nice just sitting on top of the floor, but I knew making it flush with the hardwood would be a lot nicer to live with and just look more authentic. Luckily the marble is the exact thickness (about 3/4″) of the hardwood floor, so this was not difficult. I used painter’s tape to mark the edges, pushing the marble toward the wall enough so that the front would align with the existing seam between two boards.
Back to the wood and metal blade! I wasn’t sure if I’d run into any nails (I did!) so using this blade was a safe bet. Steady hand, patience, and a good tool!
A note on these blades: they do wear out, sometimes rather quickly depending on what you’re cutting. This old yellow pine is pretty dense, so I used one blade just on cutting out this flooring. In theory the tool can handle a lot, but for cuts much bigger than this I’d likely want to break out the circular saw and just use the multi-tool for the first and last few boards to extend the life of the multi-tool blades. Those wood/metal blades are about $17 a pop, so it’s something to think about! Of course, in some situations—cutting the bottom of a door casing to slip new flooring underneath, for instance—a multi-tool is pretty much your only option unless you want to use a manual flush-cut saw like it’s the 18th century.
With the cross-cuts made and the boards removed, I again used the Multi-Max to shave off the remaining tongue on the last board so the marble will sit right up to the wood without a big gap.
LOOKS LIKE PROGRESS RIGHT?! I can’t wait to refinish these floors.
I ended up removing the lath from the area behind the summer cover, too, and building this simple little plywood box to the depth of the wall and painting it black. Totally winging it at this point. Making it work. I promise it was all making sense in my head. Mostly. I changed..
Midway through that renovation, it struck me that just maybe my recent fixation with Antarctica was due in part to…needing a vacation? Because that was the last one I went on? And it was the most amazing one but also now it’s been over a year and I am so tired? Of working? All the time?
The day after I took photos of the finished laundry room, I had to be back at another job site. It was a freelance job that began months after it was planned to, then took way too long and got difficult for really frustrating reasons both typical and novel to me, and I ended up having to spend an inordinate amount of time at the end to make sure very basic things got completed to some reasonable standard, and…holy cow. I might have been tired before, but the laundry room was fun and exciting and personal, which is motivating. This was just…frustration. Non-stop, pervasive frustration until it was done and inspected and a Certificate of Occupancy was in hand.
SO. Got through that. Took a weekend. Cleaned the house. Weekend felt good. Wanted more weekend. Can weekend also be…week? I want to do that. Let me do that right now. All days are Saturday until it is Saturday again for real. I will call it Weekend Week. Not Sunday. That is for the Lord, Heathen!
I have not planned Weekend Week. And can’t actually leave due to prior engagements. Among those prior engagements is my new practice, which is going to the gym. Your eyes do not deceive: I joined a gym. Why did I do this? My friend wanted to. I wanted to want to, but did not have the energy to actually want to, but also knew I was unlikely to do it alone because, historically, I have not done it alone. So I decided to do it with him. More specifically we joined a 6-Week Challenge at the gym, which involves exercising at the gym 4 mornings a week for 6 weeks while also eating stuff that people who spend a lot of time at the gym eat. Consequently I have been to the gym TWENTY-TWO TIMES and eaten at least 7,000 eggs in the last 5 weeks. I feel and look mediocre but certainly not more so than before, so I’d say it’s a resounding success.
Now we’re all caught up. Weekend Week. The name of the game is self-care. I will gym. I will make food to put in my face hole. I will watch the TV. I will walk the dogs. I will sit in the moment and be still in my body and visualize my goals and name my feelings and also feel my names. I will relax. There will be peace, for fuck’s sake.
Only I’m not super good at finding peace and immediately got antsy and renovated my closet instead. You knew it was coming because it’s the title of the blog post. Let’s talk about it.
My bedroom has its very own closet. DID YOU KNOW THAT? If you did, thank you for paying attention. If you didn’t, also thank you for not paying too much attention.
It looked like the above two photos. I did you the courtesy of not cleaning up before I took them, because 9 years of blogging has taught me that people are comforted by knowing we all have closets of squalor. If your closets are perfect and nice, please leave now; I’ve nothing to offer you.
So. Some parts of the closet were here when I bought the house and some I actually did myself, as in, actual effort has already gone into this space. Not a tremendous amount, but some. There was a clothing rod and a couple of shelves, so I added that long shelf across the top and the narrow vertical shelving to hold…shoes? I’m not sure. It seemed practical. I guess it was more practical than no shelves. All the wood was scrap from other projects. ALSO I remember pulling up a sheet of linoleum (when old linoleum isn’t glued down, it feels like a real gift from the past), but I never took pictures evidently. That exposed the paint-splattered but otherwise super well-preserved and unsealed subfloor. Pretty!
Sometime later, while up in the attic running the dryer vent for the new laundry room, I stepped through the ceiling of the closet. Sometimes you just have to laugh, right? Oopsie. I cleaned up what I could, threw up a few plaster buttons around the gaping hole, and put up a drywall scrap cut to the rough (very rough) size and shape of the hole. Then I ignored it for a long time.
Anyway, these little “fixes” were always intended to be temporary until I could really address the closet. What qualifies as temporary? Can you still call it temporary if it took 5 years to circle back to? I don’t have all the answers. But that’s been so much of the reality of renovating the interior of this house: get a room to a place of being useable and clean-ish and able to hold furniture, combine stuff I already own in a way that feels inoffensive, move on to the next important thing, and plan to circle back someday and really do it up. To be honest, it’s kind of a deflating strategy because nothing ever feels done, but it’s also practical for my time and budgetary limitations. I’m not really sure how else I’d go about things. Someday, I will have something other than paper shades on half my windows. Someday, I will buy a nice sofa. But today? Stop that jibber-jabber. Today I need to be saving for kitchen cabinets and countertops and hardwood flooring and sinks and faucets and oh shit the expansion tank on the boiler needs to be replaced and the cornices are rotting and damnit, I own a whole other house with no walls.
BACK TO THE SUBJECT AT HAND. The closet is neither tiny (like typical old house closets, if they exist at all!) nor large, but it definitely wasn’t pulling its weight storage-wise. Notice how it only contains hanging clothes and shoes and random crap! I used to have a dresser in my bedroom, but then I swapped that for that crazy big Eastlake armoire and moved the dresser into the little nursery room. So half my clothes were hanging in the closet and half were folded in the other room, which I found weirdly very annoying. Also, let’s just admit it: old dressers with really big drawers really suck when you have to access the contents multiple times a day. Opening the drawers is a two-hand job, the glass knobs are fairly fragile (one broke off in my hand!), and the inside of the drawers always felt disorganized even though they were SUPER organized. So my major goal was to get ALL the clothes to fit comfortably and easily into this closet. In turn, I can get that dresser out of the nursery room, which is one step closer to actually clearing out and renovating that little room. Which I kind of don’t even know what to do with, but that’s a different post.
By the way, this is a very small space with no windows which makes it super difficult to photograph. I did my best. I made this handy and detailed illustration with dimensions to help you.
A little tricky, right? Your first reaction may be that the in-swing door is a problem. And it kind of is. But it’s also original to the house, and changing the swing would have created a very awkward door situation in the bedroom, and removing it was not something I was willing to entertain. Hanging clothes typically take up about 24″ of space back to front, so you can’t really just hang a rod across the whole closet because the clothes hanging toward the end would interfere with the door. You could just use the short wall for all the main storage (essentially how it was in the “befores”), but it’s less than 4′ and that felt like an ineffective use of space since there’s 5.5′ on the other wall.
And I’m trying to fit drawers in here! If the closet were just a littttttttle bit bigger, I probably would have just tried to find a dresser and put that in. But it would have had to be a super weird size dresser to fit in this closet without taking up too much depth or obstructing the door which, again, I am too much of a pain in the ass to just remove.
FINALLY IT HIT ME. THE ANSWER THAT HAS SO OFTEN HIT ME IN THE COURSE OF MY BLOGGER LIFE.
IKEA. KITCHEN. CABINETS. I am positive I have bought and assembled more IKEA kitchen cabinets to use outside of kitchens than in them. They’re just so damn versatile, and simple, and easy, and the quality is great—for instance, the drawer glides on an IKEA dresser are usually kind of crap, but the kitchen drawers have high-quality hardware and glide like BUTTER. And soft close. No brag.
AND! IKEA makes their SEKTION cabinets in two depths—24″ for base cabinets, and 15″ for uppers. They must have gotten the hint that a lot of people were installing upper cabinets as lower cabinets in tight-space situations, so they started making the drawers for the 15″ depth too. So smart. God bless you, IKEA. 24″ would have been too deep, but the 15″ depth is perfecttttt for this small space.
I drew this richly detail sketch in bed one night, and was not willing to redo it for this post:
Thank you, I was classically trained as you can plainly see by my hangers.
So. Let’s begin.
Remember how there was that room built off the side of my house? And it was super far gone? And I tore it down? So. Above a dropped acoustic tile ceiling in there was that nice 4″ beadboard ceiling. Even though it was in rough shape—it’s thin stuff to begin with, like less than 1/2″, and water damage from the leaking roof had created some rot and some cupping—I tried to get it all down intact for reuse elsewhere. Where is elsewhere? No idea at the time. This was 3 years ago. But it’s pretty and old and so I cut out the rotted parts and jagged ends where they broke and squirreled it away.
Side note: See how the siding turns from yellow to blue and so does the ceiling? That’s because there was a wall there before this photo was taken! My dining room had 3 closets when I bought the house, but only one was original. 3!
I thought using it on the ceiling would be a fast and simple way of covering up the hole! I’d so much rather do a little carpentry than a bunch of dusty skim-coating work, particularly since I sleep 10 feet away. Even though the rest of the ceiling was in pretty good shape, I added plaster washers along the joists, since the beadboard should’t be holding up falling plaster down the road. Then I went ahead and face-nailed the boards (I found that I had to shave off the tongues and just butt the boards together) right to the ceiling with finish nails. Because it runs perpendicular to the joists, most of it’s just being held up by the lath. It’s so lightweight, it’s fine.
I did not go nuts over fixing the walls. There were a bunch of holes from all the weird shelving stuff, and I just patched everything with a lot of 3M Patch Plus and called the rest character. A crack is only a problem when you think of it as one.
I love the old hanging rail, so obviously that stayed. I did remove the painted hooks to let them simmer in the crock pot while I worked.
The floor! It had some rough spots and paint on it, so I shut myself in there with a shopvac and my orbital sander, donned a respirator, and did the damn thing. Then I ran to the shower very quickly and shut the door behind me to let the dust settle. The bedroom stayed surprisingly clean throughout this ordeal! The hallway was crazy town though. It’s amazing how even small projects end up requiring, like, ALL the tools and supplies.
I vacuumed really well and spent a bunch of time getting old dust and hair and crap out of the joints, since poly will pretty much glue that stuff down in there for life. I used some leftover Bona NaturalSeal, which has some white pigment in it to balance out the ambering that even water-based poly will do to raw wood.
A few years ago when I was working on the bedroom, I got a nice glimpse of the original pine subfloor, which is so pretty! It was interesting to see the original wax(?) finish—very light and neutral. The yellow pine over top was probably added in the 1930s. I wanted to get something like that original wax finish, so I actually added a little white paint to the sealer just to see what would happen. Low stakes!
I went to IKEA and got my cabinets. The one on the left is 24″ wide and the one on the right is 30″ wide. The drawer fronts are the VEDDINGE, which is the second-cheapest option and my old faithful. I’m fine with it looking new and mod and efficient. I love these cabinets so much it’s appalling. Living in an old house, sometimes you really appreciate brand new things that are easy and just work and aren’t some huge massive undertaking, and the glide and soft close on these drawers practically makes me weep.
I always think of IKEA kitchen cabinets as really inexpensive, and they are—relative to most other kitchen cabinets. And especially if you just need shelves inside and doors. But those drawers ADD UP. These two cabinets with their 9 drawers were $650. So. Just know that. I definitely did not actually go through the effort of pricing them beforehand, so it was like 3x what I expected to spend. Oops! It’s OK. I love them so much and I bet this is exactly how Mariah Carey feels all the time and maybe it’s good for me to be in touch with that side of myself.
I built a little base out of scrap 1x that I took out during demo. So now that wood has gone from Olivebridge to my closet shelving to holding my cabinets up. Not bad!
I built a shoe tower thing. It’s pretty much the same process I used for the pantry cabinet build, except there’s no backing and I used iron-on veneer edging for exposed edges rather than a face-frame. It’s just a 4-sided box. Easy. I drilled out shelf pin holes with my Kreg jig. That thing is great.
Paint! I color-matched the original trim color using my nix mini sensor, and it spit out this kinda butterscotch color called Scrivener Gold from Benjamin Moore. It’s totally one of those sorta muddy old-fashioned colors I feel like every old house has or had somewhere, and I really love it! I used a satin finish, so it has a nice sheen that shows off the age of the wood but doesn’t give it that “HI, I AM RECLAIMED, LOOK AT ME!” kind of look.
For the walls I had a half can of White Dove in matte, which is what I painted most of my Brooklyn apartment! With plaster walls that have a lot of character like these, a warm white in a matte finish is always a safe bet. I think it makes all of that imperfection so beautiful, and I just wanted something clean and neutral since the clothes themselves are a lot of pattern and color. Because FASHION.
ANYWAY. Finishing touches here and there and everywhere and I HAVE SUCH A NICE CLOSET OMG. I really wish I could take better/wider pictures of it because I am so pleased and so smug.
Hello sleepy Bungee! He’s a very good boy. Which reminds me that another pupdate is probably in order!
But the closet. The closet! It fits all my clothes! It feels so organized and nice! I am so fancy!!
The plan really worked out well, I think. It’s a nice mix of old and new that you know I like, and it fits everything without feeling cramped or cluttered.
And all the original bits of the space got to stay, which I’m so happy about! I love the simple hook rail so much. The hooks had been moved around over the years, but it was pretty easy to tell where they were originally mounted—so seeing them all cleaned up and spaced like they were 150 years ago feels nice! Also yes I have been repeatedly informed that they look like little erect penises.
Man, this post has everything. Gaping holes. Cracks. Erect penises. Don’t @ me.
I sort of thought I’d always look at this ceiling and feel lazy for not fixing the original plaster, but I ended up preferring it! It just adds some richness and interest and texture. And, of course, I really love using defunct parts of the house to fix other parts of the house. Not only does it legitimize my hoarding but it’s also free and unique! I can’t just go out and buy beadboard like this, and I’m so glad it’s in my closet and not in a landfill.
The little light fixture is probably from the 30s, and used to be above the sink in the upstairs kitchen! I moved it to the spot above the sink in the first floor kitchen during that initial remodel, and now it’s here. It’s a cutie. I’m glad I had the good sense to have the electrician put a light in this closet during a really early round of work years ago. It’s an exciting day when you get to finally replace the keyless utility light with a real fixture!
CAN WE TALK ABOUT MY DRAWERS. I went from 4 super big awkward heavy drawers to 9 perfect new gliding drawers and it is magic. It feels so…adult? All I know is, getting dressed and putting away laundry are pleasant activities now.
Did a very very tiny Japanese lady re-teach you how to fold all your clothes? Did you roll your eyes at the mere suggestion and then dip your toe in and then move ahead full-force and never look back? I did. Marie Kondo, you’re nuts and I love you so much and you really were right about the folding thing.
Knowing that the interiors of my drawers are tidy is pretty much the only thing that makes me feel like I have my shit together. Don’t take this away from me.
The drawer pulls are kind of special to me! They came off this big mid-century-ish shelving unit thing that I grew up with. It held toys and VHS tapes and art supplies and basically everything I cared about as a kid. My parents sold it with the house when they moved several years ago, and EVIDENTLY I decided the new owners could find their own damn knobs and took those suckers with me. Don’t leave me unsupervised is the lesson here.
I ain’t sorry.
The floor is so nice now! I think I have a little rug that would look cute in here, but for now I’m just enjoying the refinished wood.
This post is a paid partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!
WELL BOY OH BOY, it’s been a busy month of work on the Bluestone Cottage basement renovation, and now I have stuff to show you! The very first finished space in this house! Which may have been the most challenging one, although I may eat those words later, and certainly the most grim “before” I’ve ever encountered. If you haven’t checked out the earlier posts about resurfacing the concrete floor and adding insulation and finishes, go read those! We’ve got a lot of ground to get through in this one!
SHALL WE?! Let’s go.
Even though this old basement access is now covered over in favor of new wooden steps stacked under the main staircase, let’s just think wayyyyyyy back for a moment to when I first walked through this house and located the basement access. I walked down with just my iPhone flashlight, and then NOPE’D my butt right out of there. It was dark, dank, smelly, cramped, and littered with trash. And carpeting!! The kind of space where you might come upon a corpse and kinda feel like you asked for it.
Later on, once I got some lights set up down there, I took a total of two photos. They are above. I do this to myself sometimes: if I don’t really foresee something undergoing a big transformation, I neglect to take nearly enough “before” pictures and then I’m grumpy about it later. But anyway: can’t you just see a washer and dryer tucked into that little nook? No?
How about now?
NOT TOO SHABBY, AM I RIGHT?! I kind of surprised myself in here: I started work on this a month ago without any real design plan, and then inspiration struck hard in the form of Port Lockroy, a 1940s British research station on Antarctica. I tried to really let that space guide me with more than just a color scheme—the modesty, the simplicity and handmade quality of it were just as informative! I tend to overcomplicate things for myself sometimes, so I found myself mulling a lot over how to deal with certain things efficiently and frugally and without a lot of fuss. Some of those solutions ended up being my favorite things in the room!
This is shortly after I started work about a month ago, after I spent a few days cleaning up! Edwin and I had previously framed the walls, and electric and plumbing rough-ins had to be completed before any of this finish work could take place. The propane tank, by the way, is connected to this Craftsman portable propane heater—I have no idea how I lived for so long without one of these for winter projects.
S’cute right? I really wanted the space to feel super casual and practical because it’s a basement! In an old house! Practical is its entire job! So it’s not precious—throw up a hook wherever you need it, add a shelf, staple a cable, cut a hole and patch it with something else, provided you paint it—it’s all good.
Bear in mind that almost every single thing in this space is brand new and from Lowe’s!, but I still wanted it to feel like a vintage space. Finishing it like the rest of the house would have felt too formal and unnatural, though, so I tried to do things throughout to get that nice fresh WWII vibe all the kids are talking about (if I say it, does that make it true?). I basically asked myself “what would grandpa do?” a lot. Not either of my actual grandpas—to be honest, I have no idea how they would have finished a basement in 1945—more like some generic old guy in my brain who putters around. He’s always been old and he doesn’t have time for your shenanigans. Grandpa paints right over the outlets and switches and utilities, so I DID TOO. Grandpa ain’t about that painter’s tape life either. It felt so naughty and liberating. But like, I think it works.
Behind that door is the old basement access. Aside from the floor, I haven’t really dealt with that space yet, but it’ll house the boiler and some additional storage. I love that there’s a separate space for that! Because the ceiling height is so low (about 6-6’4″ depending on where you’re standing), it’s also really nice to have all the plumbing tucked into the ceiling so it could be finished without exposed Pex. Copper pipe can look great but Pex isn’t as nice to look at.
Putting all the hooks and hangers and tools on the pegboard was so much funnnnnn. I’ve never actually had a pegboard, and now I want one for myself! I kind of want this whole room for myself, but that’s a different story.
OK, now that we’ve kind of given it the once-over, let’s break it down!
Last time, we discussed the Azek composite baseboards, Dow Froth-Pak spray foam insulation, and 1/4″ thick beadboard plywood that I used for the walls. As a precaution, I painted the backside of the plywood with Rust-Oleum’s Mold Killing Primer. I attached the panels to the studs with 1 1/4″ exterior screws, and strips of scrap wood cover all the seams! The intention here is that should parts of a wall/ceiling ever need to be removed for any reason (like to access a pipe or a cable or something), one could do so fairly easily by just prying off the seam trim and locating the screw heads, and everything could likely be reused for the repair.
Since I ripped the panel widths down for the walls, I had some large off-cuts to use on the ceiling! The joists are all over the place and the thin plywood is definitely wavy as a result, but it’s ok! It looked so bad before I put up the seams to cover the strips and painted it, but now it’s great. The strips on the seams, by the way, are just the same plywood ripped to 2″ and flipped over to the smooth side. The “chair rail” piece is scraps of that same Azek composite board I used for the baseboard, ripped down to 2″ and only 1/2″ thick. I made a LOT of sawdust during this project, but didn’t buy any lumber (composite or real!) aside from 15 sheets of the plywood.
Itty bitty window! I’m pretty sure it had only been painted when it was new and had never been reglazed—which left it in probably the most restorable condition of any window in the house!
The old hardware didn’t work anymore with the new framing/trim, so I had to improvise a little but it works!
I couldn’t dress up this room without a few little nods to my Antarctic inspiration. That little print is by Charley Harper—I’ve been carrying around a stack of prints like this that I ripped out of a day planner like a decade ago.
This vintage print is one of the only things left in my own house from a previous owner, and I thought it’d be cute just hanging there tacked to the wall all casual. I used my super special supply of vintage carpet tacks for the occasion.
The door to the boiler room actually came out of my own house, too! It was a 1930s closet addition and the style isn’t appropriate for my house, but it’s perfect for this space! And it was already so small that I only had to cut about an inch off the bottom to make it work. Like it was meant to be!
So the grandpa part of me wanted to paint the door hardware right along with the door, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Ha! So I restored it instead. The backplate was original to this door, but the knob itself came from this house (the original knob is glass—I may use it upstairs?). I like when I can use excess from my house in other projects—it makes them all feel linked in a weird way.
Can we just take a hard right for a second and talk about HOW GLORIOUS IS THIS PAINT?! Now, you guys know me by now, right? I tend to be a black-white-neutral kinda guy when it comes to paint. I’m not typically using two really strong greens in combination, plus a color that resembles warm mayonnaise. BUT I LOVE IT. I love it so much that I wish we could all hang out down here in person, because the colors don’t translate precisely into photos shot in artificial light on an iPhone, but I did my best. It feels cheery and clean and vintage and modern and British and nautical and like a morgue all at the same time. The morgue part, especially, pleases me greatly.
Over time I’ve learned to appreciate sheens as much as colors—how glossy or matte a paint is can be a total game-changer! The Valspar High Gloss Enamel paint is fantastic to work with—thick, great coverage, and excellent self-leveling ability. The high gloss feels SO nice down here—it really gives off a vintage oil-based paint vibe, but with all the convenience and relative environmental friendliness and accelerated dry time of modern latex paint. Every surface feels scrubbable and smooth, and the sheen reflects a lot of light and makes the whole space just feel fresh. Love.
The actual painting was a bit labor-intensive, but totally worth it. I ended up finding that rolling with a regular nap 9″ roller and back-brushing everything with a 3″ angled brush was a good method for getting thorough coverage—all those grooves in the beaded ply suck up a lot of paint! You want to use kind of a heavy hand to get that thick oil-based paint look, you know? I did a minimum of two coats and three in some areas, and it would just look better and better with more coats. That plywood goes from looking a little hokey and cheap to downright luxurious with the right paint and caulk.
By the way, I’m a huge fan of these Whizz Microlon roller covers. They don’t shed like other roller covers do, and they wash really well—I threw some in my washing machine after giving them a good rinse, and they came out looking and feeling brand new! They’re awesome.
The upper walls and ceiling are Valspar’s “Ginger Sugar,” the minty color is called “Kelp,” and the dark green accent is “Palace Green.” For maybe the first time ever, I got three sample colors and ended up using exactly those three sample colors!
By the way—it took me a while to figure out how exactly to deal with these stairs. They were built speedily but not well, which ended up making a bunch of extra work for me later to reinforce all the treads and figure out how to finish them in a way that felt decent-looking and easy to clean. On the upside, I’m pretty sure I’ve figured it out. On the downside, I haven’t actually done it yet. But the stringer looks not bad for nailing some literal trash to it and painting it green! Let’s also not forget that I still have to renovate the entire house, so those basement stairs might take a beating before all is said and done—it might be better to just wait.
ANYWAY. Let’s discuss this region of the room. Pegboard? Love it. I just used a regular roller to paint it (be careful with brushing—paint can pool in the holes and drip out as it dries). It’s furred out 1″ from the studs behind, which creates the space for the pegs to be inserted into place. I started with this large assortment of pegboard accessories by Blue Hawkand then purchased a few extra bits like those little black mesh baskets and little yellow containers. I think organizing the pegboard is my new favorite game.
The big wooden trunk is an antique I picked up a while ago that I never especially had a space for in my house, but it adds a lot of charm here! It’s currently empty, but it could store a million different things. At my house it held a sewing machine and a bunch of fabric and associated supplies, but I decided those things would feel more at home spread across my dining room table because I needed to poach that trunk for my big boy art project.
The hanging clothes dryer is from one of my favorite stores in Brooklyn (now closed, like everything else I used to like in Brooklyn), and is no longer in production, so I cannot help you there. It hung in my first laundry room in my own house, and I would have reused it in my second one but there just wasn’t a good spot for it. I know this arrangement looks a little funny, but it’s hung far enough from the pegboard that I don’t think it’s an issue.
Speaking of drying! I’m not yet in a position to report back on the performance of the Bosch 500-series washer and matching electric ventless dryer I got for this space (read more about that decision-making here!) because they aren’t tottttalllllly hooked up yet, but I still feel good about them! You guys gave me a lot of good feedback on ventless dryers—which are definitely not all created equal—including how to optimize performance and what to reasonably expect. Some of you even have experience with these very models, which was encouraging! So anyway, I’m hoping that between the actual dryer, the hanging dryer, and the clothesline, there are enough ways to dry stuff down here.
OH YEAH GIRL, THERE’S A RETRACTABLE CLOTHESLINE. Did you think this was a JOKE? It stretches from one side of the room to the other and it took about 5 minutes to put up but somehow feels like huge fancy luxury and height of modern convenience.
My machine nook ended up being weirdly challenging! The hookups are way up by the ceiling (remember, really low ceilings), and I hate looking at that stuff but it needs to be easily accessible. I also wanted a big surface on top to fold or sort or put down a towel and iron or whatever, and a place to throw stuff away, while still leaving space around the machines (evidently crowding the dryer can really affect its performance), and then there’s that big 3″ waste line above and other plumbing just cutting across all ugly like that.
For the work surface, I mounted old 2×4 scraps as cleats to the side walls and back (I ended up cutting off the ends of that back piece later for the hoses and cords to fit up through), being sure to hit the studs. Then I used this Baltic Birch butcherblock counter, which was almost the perfect size! A few measurements and a pass with the circular saw later, I had a SUPER nice, solid worktop! To finish it, I used this Watco butcher block oil and finish, which is excellent stuff—it doesn’t need to be refreshed nearly as often as mineral oil does.
The overhead waste line situation was a little more iffy. I thought originally that I’d just build out a little soffit and box it in like a regular person, but after putting up a small section just to get a sense of how it would look and feel, I couldn’t! It looked AWFUL and it was a real head-banger—worse than the pipe alone since it protruded out further and lower. Just so awkward and terrible. I moved on to other stuff until I could think of a better solution. What would grandpa do?
Well, I’m not sure what grandpa would do but I know what I did which was so easy and I’m a little too smug about. I attached the framing lumber—one nailer up on the ceiling and one below on the wall. Obviously the framing is level and the pipe is pitched down, so I wanted to keep my “soffit” as high as possible while still maintaining a level line.
One occasionally advantageous quality of the Azek composite boards is that they’re SUPER bendy. After ripping 3/4″ thick boards down to 1/2″ thick for the chair rail, I had a lot of 1/8″ thick off-cuts that can bend almost in half before breaking. A-ha! I attached strips like this in several places along the length of the soffit to create a super-simple frame/shape.
Then, I attached 14″ flashing to the framing along the ceiling, and pulled it over my rounded composite board skeleton so it’d maintain a nice curve! I went into Lowe’s for aluminum flashing but opted for this vinyl flashing instead, since I thought it would be more forgiving as I inevitably bent and creased it by accident during install. This definitely would have been better as a two person job but I managed.
Anyway—a little caulk and paint and now it’s one of my favorite things in the room! It definitely looks like painted sheet metal, not vinyl flashing, and I feel like it’s one of those things your brain just kind of accepts as serving some function and moves on without thinking about more. I felt really crafty with that one, you guys.
This post is a paid partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!
A little over a year ago, you may recall that I got back from the most insane once-in-a-lifetime expedition to Antarctica. Antarctica! I still have a hard time grasping that it was real, but I went with my family and they’ll back me up on this. It was decidedly more of a vacation than an expedition, but the tour company insisted on calling it an expedition and that felt so much more adventurous and exciting. Whatever it was, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
An unexpected side-effect of going on this trip didn’t hit until a couple of months ago, though. I began having some variation on the same dream every single night—that due to some clerical error, or a last-minute cancellation, we were all headed back to Antarctica to do it all over again. Another Christmas celebrated at the bottom of the globe with penguins and icebergs. It was news I could not have been more excited about as I’d quickly clear my schedule and pack up all of last year’s gear and get ready to depart. Then I’d wake up really disappointed that I’d imagined the whole thing and think about it a lot throughout the day.
I don’t usually dream like this, by the way. Or make a habit of talking about dreams, because it is objectively the most annoying thing ever. Like even more annoying than talking about your own vacation which I AM ALSO DOING RIGHT NOW. I guess you could say I’m on THIN ICE here!!! GET IT?And now I’m your dad.
What is happening. I promise this is going somewhere.
Obviously, Antarctica is mostly about the wonders of our natural world, but I found myself really compelled by the unnatural wonders, too—specifically, how human beings in all their perseverance and inventiveness figure out how to make the most inhospitable place on earth into home. For decades now, Antarctica has hosted researchers from all over the world. You have to get there by ship, and it’s not an easy or fast or inexpensive journey. Once you’re there, you’re there. You have only exactly the supplies you were given—to eat, drink, stay warm, stay clean, stay entertained, do your job, keep from going nuts. When it’s summer in the northern hemisphere, these researchers basically don’t see the sun for weeks. Close quarters. Strangers you very quickly have to get along with. Grueling conditions outdoors. No real recourse if something goes wrong. It’s not unlike working on a space station, except imagine if the spaceship had to be built IN SPACE by the astronauts on board. It’s basically that.
Here’s the point: when I first got the go-ahead from Lowe’s to renovate the basement laundry project for Bluestone Cottage, I leapt at the chance and then realized I had no idea what I actually wanted to do or how I actually wanted it to look. I’ve thought a lot more about the rest of the house than I’ve ever dwelled on the basement, and so I figured I’d take the whole figure-out-the-basic-strokes-and-feel-it-out-from-there approach that sometimes I am wont to do.
AND THEN, one bright morning, inspiration struck. I awoke with A VISION. OF A THING I’D SEEN. Grabbed my phone. Located the pics from Antarctica. Port Lockroy, circa 1944. It’s a British research station that’s now a historic site, and also hosts the continent’s only gift shop and post office. That’s the exterior, above, clad in black tar paper and that hot hot hot red/orange trim. So good.
Oh, hello! This is a direction I can get behind for a basement laundry room. And I imagine the construction of it looked something like how I’m currently spending my days—working in a confined space, in the cold except for my Craftsman propane heater (a TRUE revelation, omg), with whatever supplies I have available, trying to keep any waste to a minimum and just make it happen.
(I know, I know. Yes, Lowe’s is sponsoring and supplying most of the materials. But to provide some insight on that, that doesn’t make it a blank check! I still have to be scrappy and crafty to make this room work, considering it needs E V E R Y T H I N G. Also, actually procuring those materials isn’t as simple as regular shopping, so MUCH LIKE THOSE ANTARCTIC EXPLORERS (except not at all), I can’t just run out every time I need something. Except to my garage, which like, those guys had to keep their stuff somewhere. Right? Except they didn’t really have power tools. You know what, never mind. I actually can’t imagine the logistics of building something on Antarctica in the 1940s; I’m sorry, I gave it my best effort, and now we will move on.)
Am I crazy? I might have gone crazy. But I also really want to rip off THIS WHOLE LEWK because it just makes me so happy? I love how modest and simple and un-done these spaces are. It’s preserved from when it served as both living quarters and an active research station, and had to function well for both so nobody lost their damn minds—a legitimate risk with all that isolation! I love how homespun everything is. And I love the use of color—you have to imagine that between the harsh conditions and the long stretches without daylight, it was a smart, strategic decision to introduce bright colors into the space and paint everything including the utilities. It feels like kind of unintentionally great design at work, and very appropriate for that finished/un-finished old house basement vibe. It’s never going to feel like just another room in the house, so let’s…not make it like the rest of the house!
How much do you want to bet they mixed the dark green chair rail paint (which is really just a painted line, not molding) with the white to make that color on the lower half of the walls? I bet they did. And it’s pretty perfect. I’ve become a little fixated on it.
I even love the glossy glossy walls! This is certainly old oil paint, and it just feels very…British. They know how to slap on a perfectly-imperfect glossy coat of paint like nobody’s business. I think this is true but I could just have a weird bias expressing itself.
Look at this simple ceiling-mounted drying rack! Looks like a fun afternoon project. I love that someone took the time to create that angled detail on the side instead of just using square boards all the way around.
OK, are we feeling this direction? If you are not, well, that is TOO BAD because I am. Sorrynotsorry. Let’s paint some stuff bright green and party in the basement.
Here’s a quick sketch of what I’m thinking space-wise! I want the room to function well as a laundry space but it’s also going to need to pack in a lot of storage and still house all the utility stuff that makes the house work.
That little boiler room in the back is where you used to enter the basement when I bought the house, but relocating the stairs saved precious square footage in the kitchen AND created that little closet in the basement perfect for a high-efficiency hot water heater/boiler combo (likely the same one I have in my own house!). The alcove seemed like the most natural place to put the washer and dryer, side-by side (you MIGHT be able to squeeze stacked units in here, depending on the size/brand, but it would be VERY tight. The ceiling height is only slightly over 6 feet) with a nice work surface on top and some kind of storage above—I’m still tossing around ideas for that! Opposite the machines, I think I’ll just mount pegboard over that whole wall, and a vintage ceiling-mounted drying rack in front of it, with enough clearance between the two so it’s not weird. I had considered pegboard over the long work bench and shelving on this other wall, but I didn’t think that worked with the drying rack, and there’s nowhere else for that, so. We’ll all find out together.
This is where we left off, with the walls framed, electric and plumbing roughed in, Sakrete Self-Leveling Resurfacer laid, and baseboards installed! While I obviously want this to feel like a finished space, it’s still an old house basement—in other words, I don’t totally trust it, haha! So I’m trying really hard to be smart about the materials and the way the room is assembled, so any potential issues down the line can be addressed without major upset or drama. Basically I want the whole room to be an access panel because you just never know.
To that end, I used scrap Azek boards for the baseboards—a PVC board that’s really for exterior work, and therefore won’t mold or rot in the case of any moisture intrusion issues. Once painted it looks like wood, and it’s felt SO GOOD putting those piles of scrap to productive use!
I took this hot n’ sexy selfie to commemorate my second encounter with DIY closed-cell spray foam insulation. I don’t think we need to go into that process again because WE JUST WENT OVER THIS, but I had a couple of leftover boxes of Dow Froth-Pak 210 from my guest room and decided to use them here. I’ll more than likely hire out the insulation of the rest of the house, but I needed this done now and it’s a reasonably small space to do it. Spraying over stone foundation walls feels…I don’t know, wrong? But it’s extremely common practice here for finished basement walls because it provides insulation, is unaffected by moisture, and creates a great vapor barrier—better than other materials because it doesn’t leave voids up against the uneven surface of the stone. In a newer basement with block walls or poured concrete, rigid foam insulation like this is more typical, and a big cost savings.
For the walls and ceiling, I opted to use this 1/4″ beaded birch plywood. Since I’m working almost entirely alone save for some help with the heaviest lifting, this material is lightweight and easy for me to manage on my own as I cut and install it. I think it’ll add some necessary texture and detail to the space, too! Covering the seams with simple trim and leaving screw heads exposed should make it pretty easy to remove the panels for whatever reason down the line, like if you needed to access a pipe or an electrical cable or just want to check on what’s happening behind the walls. And then easy to put back up!
As a precaution, I primed the back of each piece with this Rust-Oleum mold-killing primer, which seems to really be for safely painting over an already-moldy surface, but also should prevent mold from growing (or recurring) in the first place, if I’m understanding the can correctly. There’s an MDF version of this plywood, too, but MDF and moisture do NOT mix well, and…you know. I WORRY. ABOUT EVERYTHING.
Walls, going up! Getting to this stage is so nice. Something to look at!!
CAN WE KINDA SEE IT?! I still had scrap Azek boards, so I ripped them to 1/2″ thickness on the table saw and used them for the “chair rail” and the vertical seams. Those little trim pieces are just tacked up with a few brad nails—easy to pry off to access the screws holding the plywood up. I’m trying to squeeze every square inch out of each sheet of plywood, so you can see off-cuts from the walls beginning to make up the ceiling. It’s starting to feel like a room!
OK, so! In terms of some specific products that will make this MAGIC happen, I’m keeping it super simple and utilitarian, with a couple of upgrades!
THE MACHINES! Obviously the washer and dryer are going to be a pretty important part of creating a laundry room, and there are SO MANY options available now—I think back to buying my washer and dryer only 5-ish years ago and it’s like a different world out there! Washers that connect to Wifi! Dryers with built-in drying racks! Bright LED lights! The future is now, and it’s nuts. On top of that, there’s the age-old front-loader vs. top-loader debate, and now these incredibly snazzy machines like the Samsung FlexWash and FlexDry that have BOTH. Since I’m not honestly sure if this house will be sold or rented, and I didn’t want to blow my entire budget for the room on the machines, I was looking for something kind of mid-range and with good reviews. I’ve LOVED my LG machines in my own house, and I also love having a nice big worktop over a set of front-loaders—I prefer it to top-loaders or stacked units, personally, so that kind of eliminated the fancy Samsung FlexWash/FlexDry notion. Lowe’s tends to have a lot of appliance sales throughout the year, and I’ve noticed that last year’s models tend to go on clearance when the new ones come out, so that’s where I like to start my search!
THEN. And I’m embarrassed to admit this: I thought to check the measurements. Not of the nook where the machines are supposed to go—that’s definitely big enough—but the doorway down to the basement that machines need to fit through! OOPSIE. SOUND THE ALARM. WE HAVE A MAJOR SCREW-UP. Um. Do people still use…washboards? Because machines are not fitting down into this basement.
LUCKILY, because this is Lowe’s and solving conundrums such as these is kind of their thing, there were STILL a lot of options for me! Just different options—smaller options! It’s a small house, so I’m not going to sweat small machines. I actually think it makes a lot of sense. After lots of comparing reviews, prices, and features, I landed on this highly-reviewed Bosch 500-series washer and the matching electric dryer. There’s a slightly cheaper 300-series and a slightly more expensive 800-series—but I didn’t really see myself using the added features of the 800 series, so the 500 felt like a good bet. Other brands like Samsung, GE, Whirlpool, and LG all make their own version of machines this size, all available at Lowe’s, but the Bosch reviews put it over the edge for me.
One thing that’s highly intriguing (to me. just me?) is that the dryer is ventless—which some people love, some people hate, and most Americans don’t even realize is a thing. I guess in Europe it’s the norm if you have a dryer at all, so it’s gotta be OK right?! These small machines are also the norm across the pond, and often installed in kitchens like a dishwasher. From what I understand, the ventless dryer does take longer and clothes aren’t likely to come out bone dry like they do with a vented dryer, but the result is a more energy-efficient laundering experience that’s much gentler on your clothes and linens. So let’s embrace it. It also means I don’t have to figure out a way to vent a dryer here, which was MORE than welcome news—please don’t make me go into the crawlspace, for I may never return.
SO. Having cleared that hurdle, the other stuff came pretty easily. Let’s run it down. Here’s the same mood board again for easier reference, in case you haven’t committed it to memory.
WALLS! Walls and ceilings are this beaded plywood! At my store, this is back with the moldings rather than up with the lumber where the rest of the plywood is, just head’s up! There’s a different beaded plywood in the lumber section, evidently suitable for interior or exterior use, but it was a lot rougher and I worried the prep would kill me. The panels I’m using are very smooth and nice—just like the MDF panels but real plywood! It would be great for backing cabinets or bookshelves or a million other things, too.
PAINT! I wasn’t kidding when I said I wanted to rip off that kitchen in Port Lockroy. I got samples of Ginger Sugar, Kelp (how appropriate!), and Palace Green, all from Valspar—eek! So bright! Greens are tricky. I hope this works but like, it might not. Ha! I also think I’m going to take the cue from my inspiration and bump it all the way up to high gloss—I’ve never used this Valspar High Gloss enamel, so I’ll let you know! SO MANY THINGS SO UNLIKE ME, I KNOW.
STORAGE! First up is regular old pegboard! Pegboard walls are just so functional for a small storage space like this one, so cheap to execute (63 cents a square foot!), and have that cute vintage vibe. For a bit more money, steel or polypropylene look-alikes are available too. I’ll probably just pick up a mixed bag of hooks and stuff for it. I’m hoping this room also comes in handy for ME as I renovate the rest of the house!
For the workbench, I picked up one of these inexpensive, old-faithful Edsal shelving units. I grew up with these in my basement! I have them in my current basement! I’ve never assembled one as a workbench, though, even though it’s designed to do both, and I’m weirdly excited. Unfortunately the particleboard shelves it comes with are basically trash (they’re thin and sag with any weight) so I’ll be swapping those for cabinet-grade ply. I’ll probably paint the metal frame with one of the accent colors.
For the top of the workbench AND for the worktop above the machines, I sprung for this nice
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If you caught my post yesterday, you know that I’m back at work on the long-suffering Bluestone Cottage, and that the first space I’m really tackling is…THE BASEMENT. I’m finishing a basement! This is a first!
This is where we started so many eons ago. It was awful for many reasons.
It’s made less awful by the addition of work lights, not to mention the passage of time, but it was really, really bad. Aside from all the junk, there was also a defunct oil-burning boiler, obsolete heat pipes, rotted posts, termite-damaged joists, and—to my surprise—a moldy falling-down drywall ceiling and CARPETING. WALL-TO-WALL-CARPETING. That carpeting probably tops the list of grossest things I’ve ever removed during a renovation, and that includes mummy squirrels, a tub that someone died and partially decomposed in, and an enormous pile of 90s porno mags for people with an affinity for extremely large-busted women.
When I was designing how this house would work, I decided it was just too small to dedicate living space to a washer and dryer, but I still wanted it to have both. That left one option: basement laundry. I’ll let that shiver leave your spine. I know that’s not most people’s ideal, but it’s better than no laundry at all and I’m determined to make it nice, finished-feeling, and an asset rather than a bummer. It’s 200 square feet of potential, and I’m going to try to make the most of it!
Finishing a basement in an old house makes me a little nervous. In part because I’ve never done it, and in part because back in the day, these spaces were never meant to be finished in the way the rest of the house was. A lot of old basements, like mine, are so clogged up with wiring and plumbing and support posts that the idea of finishing it feels borderline ludicrous. And since my own home renovation is such a long-term project, I frequently need access to the utilities as new work is added and old work is removed. The basement just can’t be a precious space in many old houses—but clean and comfortable and utilitarian all feel like achievable goals, especially here where all the utilities are brand new.
Totally different angle (that nook is over to the left, just out of frame), but this is where I started a couple of weeks ago. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but this does actually represent major progress, just not the beautiful kind. It happened in fits and spurts. You’ll notice a MESS of wiring waiting to get tied into the panel (all new, though!) and a bunch of new pex and PVC plumbing that will eventually make 1.5 bathrooms, a couple of hose bibs, a kitchen, a washing machine, and a hot water radiator heat system all function. LET. US. PRAY. Also, all the walls are now framed for insulation and finishes,* and the floor joists above have been reinforced and the old support “posts” have been removed. SO IT LOOKS LIKE GARBAGE but it’s actually a lot of money and work to get to this point of dungeon horror.
*We framed the walls in pressure-treated 2x4s. I learned later that this was maybe overkill—you’d definitely want to use pressure treated for the bottom plate as it’s in contact with the concrete, but vertical supports are typically done in fir or white lumber unless they’re actually affixed to the masonry. Oops. Now we know.
NOW LET’S START MAKING IT PRETTY. PLEASE. I NEED TO SEE SOMETHING NICE-ISH. It’s not good for your brain to have a job site look like this for long. As me how I know.
VERY CLEARLY, THERE IS A LOT TO DO. And I can’t be spending a ton of time or money on it, it just has to get done. So first order of business? Getting the floor in shape. It didn’t necessarily have to come first, but for my sanity it did, and also the machines are being delivered soon and I want to be able to have the delivery guys bring them downstairs because it’s going to be tricky getting them down.
So. Floor. On the bright side there was already a concrete floor, so we’re not starting COMPLETELY from scratch, but it was ROUGH. Very rough—think some crumbling, some cracking, some holes, various old patch jobs, and not remotely flat or level. I think part of making this basement laundry plan work lies in making sure all parts of it feel nice and clean-able, and the existing floor was anything but! It was well beyond the point of any kind of quick and easy solution (like just painting it, or an epoxy kind of resurfacer), so it seemed like a job for self-leveling concrete as a first step.
Now, I’ve used self-leveling concrete a couple times over the years, and I’d always been under the impression that it was all supposed to be used as an underlayment for something else—like a floating laminate, a stick-down tile, a ceramic tile, etc,—but not as a finished floor surface. And that does appear to be true for some of these products, but some sleuthing confirmed that Sakrete’s Fastset Self-Leveling Resurfacer can actually be used either as an underlayment or as a wear surface! I’m totally fine with a nice concrete floor for a basement, so my plan became to just seal the concrete rather than going through the time and expense of adding a whole layer of additional flooring. Groovy.
That being said, actually installing the concrete is a bit more involved than just mixing and pouring! There are a lot of products to compare and instructions for each to follow for best results. Note how I say best results—SOMETIMES it’s not possible to follow every single instruction or meet every single ideal condition, and you know what? SOMETIMES you just have to do your best. My experience with concrete has been that it’s more forgiving than package instructions might lead you to believe, and you can still get a very nice, long-lasting and good-looking result without necessarily achieving the OPTIMAL result or performance (we’re talking about cosmetic work here, not load-bearing). It’s ok. Sometimes you’re working in an unheated, uninsulated old house in upstate New York in January with a $100 propane heater, trying to make it work. FOR INSTANCE.
So here’s what I did:
STEP 1: PREP.
The most underrated phase of any project is the prep. It’s no fun but you can’t skip it. With self-leveling concrete (or really any kind of coating at all, like paint!), you want a clean and stable substrate for the new material to bond to—which in this case was a tall order.
I thought I could prep for the concrete in a few hours. It took like four days. I hauled—and this is not hyperbole—on the order of about 150 pounds of just DUST out of the basement. Dirt and dust and sawdust and other detritus captured by the Shopvac (I have a huge Shopvac, but I find that I really prefer this little guy when working in a small space). I swept. I vacuumed. I swept some more. I vacuumed some more. I scrubbed the really dirty areas with a wire brush. I vacuumed some more. I did my best. The instructions mention mechanically profiling the surface to promote adhesion, but I didn’t do that. I also didn’t use any special chemicals or anything, since I needed the floor to be dry enough to accept the primer and concrete—outdoors a pressure-washing or something might be a better option than for indoor work where there’s nowhere for water to drain. I just cleaned as thoroughly as I could and called it good enough.
STEP 2: PATCH
All of my cleaning efforts exposed a few areas of major damage in the floor—in severe spots, right down to the dirt underneath the slab! Yikes. This is not how you’d pour a slab today, ha! But it’s what I’m working with, and excavating it all out and installing a vapor barrier and gravel and a new few inches of reinforced concrete is very much not in the cards.
There are various products around for patching areas of damaged concrete, and I used this one because I had it! I’m pretty sure this came out of Anna‘s basement, meaning this 10-lb bucket of concrete dust has probably been passed around for about a decade now—ha! One of the joys of finishing this house is going to be using up SO MUCH STUFF I’ve accumulated either with this house in mind, or leftovers and scrap from other projects. It’s highly motivating.
Just follow the mixing instructions for whatever patch product you’re using and make sure you give it time to cure before moving onto the next steps! For this step, I used this concrete binding adhesive in place of water for extra security. The dark areas are what I patched.
STEP 3: PRIME
It’s probably a good idea to vacuum again right before priming. Again, priming will depend on the concrete product you’re using—mine called for the use of a self-leveling bonding primer, although it didn’t specify a specific product. Of course it didn’t!
After some hunting around, I landed on this MAPEI Primer T from Lowe’s, which appears to be for this very thing. It was actually back in the flooring section with thinset and grout and stuff, rather than up by the concrete in the building materials area. Just FYI!
For added excitement, the primer is hot pink! The package instructions said to water it down by about half for this kind of application, so that’s what I did. Watered down, it’s very thin and sticky, like a glue.
Thinning it in a bucket made it easy to just pour some on the floor and roll it out with a 9″ rough-nap roller to spread it, aiming for a nice even coat. This stuff is a little tricky—it’s dry and ready to go in a few hours, but you want to lay the concrete within 24 hours of priming or they recommend re-priming. This gives you a 20-ish hour window to pour all the concrete.
STEP 4: POUR
Following the instructions on the Self-Leveling Resurfacer, I measured out my water and mixed in my concrete—each 50-lb bag fits nicely in a 5 gallon bucket. The package specifies 2 minutes of mixing, which is not a short amount of time when you’re standing there controlling the drill, so it’s good to use a real timer.
Speaking of the drill, almost immediately I knew I had a problem! I thought I could get away with using my regular drill, which was a mistake (I do love that drill, though. All my Porter Cable tools have been such workhorses, and they’re really reasonably priced. Just not for mixing concrete). Then I thought I could get away with the more heavy-duty hammer drill that I have for occasions such as mixing joint compound, and before long that one was emitting smoke and not at all cutting it. So I got through three bags of concrete before calling it quits, and deciding I needed to pick up a more powerful mixing drill.
One tricky thing to keep in mind is that for a solid slab, as far as I understand, you really want to do the pour in one take. If you can’t for some reason (like if your drill is weak and Lowe’s is closed), it’s better to re-prime and re-pour over the section you already did than try to blend a dried pour with new stuff. Oof.
ANNNNNNNNND, curveball! The electrician finally got back to me. They could be there the next morning to finish tying all the rough electric into the panel (which I’ll need in order to close that wall), get the recessed lighting powered up so I could stop dangling work lights all over the place in this dark basement, and add a few outlets around the room since I wasn’t especially focused on the basement when they did the initial rough-in and didn’t specify them.
When the hard-to-get-ahold-of-tradesperson says jump, you ask how high and rearrange your whole life to accommodate.
That morning, the area I poured looked like this, which was VERY exciting. It was…relatively smooth (that huge hole was in the middle of that floor!). Solid. Dry. But also very…grey. And very…flat. Which is how it’s supposed to look, but I guess I was hoping for something with some more variation and movement. This was more like someone spilled a thick layer of grey paint on the floor. Hmmmmm. Something to stew on!
So the electricians did, in fact, show up, do all the things I asked, and it was a relief. Time to get back to work on this floor.
ANNNNNNNNNNND, then the plumber got back to me. He could be there the next morning to finish a few little undone things with the rough-in, and take a look at re-routing some of the more lazily run pex through joists and in bays rather than on the surface of the joists, where I’d like to be installing a ceiling.
Floor can wait, I guess.
Morning turned into afternoon, and the plumbers showed up. They got to work. There wasn’t enough time in the day left for them to finish, so they’d be back in the morning.
Morning came. Midday came. Afternoon came. Plumbers cancelled. Next morning. Oy vey. I occupied my time by talking about my puppy.
The plumbing took all of the next day. And then he was missing a part, so he’d be back the next morning. I JUST WANT TO POUR MY FLOOR ALREADY EVERYONE GET OUT OF MY WAY. These things happen.
So, with everyone out of my hair: take two. Re-clean it all. Much easier with that layer of bonding primer.
Re-prime the floor. This was also easier the second time around, and used about half the amount of product because the concrete isn’t as porous with a coat already on it.
Like I mentioned, I really needed a more powerful drill to handle mixing the concrete, so I picked up this DeWalt hammer drill from Lowe’s which was on sale for $99! Not bad! It’s 10amps and didn’t struggle at all as I went through bag after bag, much to my relief. It’s fitted with this mixing paddle, which is recommended for this type of concrete.
I also decided I wanted to attempt something different than the solid grey look of the self-leveling resurfacer, so I bought some powdered cement pigment! I read in a couple of places that using regular latex paint in place of water to tint concrete also works nicely, but I figured I’d stick with the product that’s actually designed to do this job instead. I wanted to warm up the color—kind of an orange-ish yellow-ish brown-ish beige-ish, maybe?—so I got colors called Red, Terra Cotta, and Buff. I figured if I combined them I’d get something close to what was in my brain, and if I was a little inconsistent between batches I could blend as I went to get some variation across the pour. I used a 1/3rd cup measuring cup to measure my powders, and about 1-1.5 cups of powder per bag of concrete. I’d suggest buying more than you think you need of any product in this post including the concrete so you don’t run out, and then returning what you don’t use.
To mix the concrete, I found it easiest to measure out the water first, mix that with the pigment, and then add about half the bag of concrete and mix. This should combine quickly and easily. Then add the second half and mix for two minutes, pausing to scrape around the sides where powder may not be getting incorporated properly. It’s about the consistency of cake batter. It’s tempting to add more water but you really shouldn’t because it’ll affect the strength as it cures. A white film on top of the concrete as it’s setting is an indication of too much water.
If you can wrangle a second set of hands, I’d recommend it. If you have one bucket mixing while the other is pouring, the whole process will move faster and speed is pretty key here. Each bag has about 25 minutes of working time, and you want to keep a wet edge throughout the process. Obviously don’t work yourself into a corner, but try to start in the high spot if you can.
If you can’t wrangle a second set of hands, don’t despair. Someday we’ll both find friends who want to play concrete with us, just not today. You got this. Don’t need no man.
Now we’re cooking! I stand by my pigment ideas, but I wish I had spent time making up samples and letting them dry and adjusting as-needed—at this point my timeline was blown and I just wanted to get it done and I couldn’t tell whether the color would change a lot as it dried, or not, and I just kept moving and embracing the mystery of it all. Jesus, take the wheel.
(There’s also plenty you can do to change the appearance after the pour, so don’t freak!)
Working by myself, it took 3-4 hours or so to mix and pour all of the concrete start to finish. Then, at the end, I was feeling a little bonkers and like the floor was still looking kind of…flat, so I started using my hands to kind of fling droplets of water onto the surface for the splatter-y effect. This is…not part of the instructions. It’s called CREATIVE LIBERTY, OK?
Interesting. Very interesting. I’m not sure. The stakes are low here; I am not concerned.
Again, to be clear: the “self-leveling” part of the “self-leveling resurfacer” is only partially true. It levels out to a smooth texture on its own, but it doesn’t really level the floor on its own—it does kind of maintain the pitches and contours of the substrate. You’re also not supposed to apply less than 1/8″ or more than 1″—in other words, your floor already has to be fairly level if that’s truly what you’re after. One way to compensate is using a different concrete product to build up really low areas before using the self-leveler, and/or to lightly use a trowel or a 2×4 to skim and level as you pour, starting in the high spot of the floor if possible, although the instructions explicitly state that a trowel is optional and should be used sparingly if at all.
OR, you take my approach, which is basically that dead-on level floors don’t belong in old house basements anyway and clean-able was the whole goal here to begin with, and you’ve pretty much achieved it and that’s a win.
Now that it’s had a couple of days to dry out, I think I like it?! It’s not unlike the color of a bandaid, but the splattery effect came out kind of nice, and most importantly it’s smooooooth! It’s easy to sweep! It’s easy to vacuum! The space feels SO much brighter and cleaner already, and there still aren’t even walls or ceilings.
I went ahead and installed baseboards because I can still insulate with them installed, and it was something to do while I considered a third pour—partly to try again on the color, partly to try to continue to improve the leveling. I decided that 14 bags—a mere 700 pounds of concrete powder— was enough, though, and I’m just fine with this! I’m tired. That being said, the baseboards are level so you can see how the floor still pitches. I think I’ll cover those gaps with a shoe molding and call it a day.
Even though this basement is luckily quite dry, I’m still trying to take every possible..
Have you ever seen a problem, thought you could help be part of the solution, and accidentally magnified the problem you set out to solve? I have. If you haven’t had the pleasure, I’ll give you some insight: it feels fucking terrible.
I bought my house in Kingston in the summer of 2013. By that I mean the house that I live in, the one we talk about a lot on this blog as I try (and try, and try, and try) to renovate and restore it inside and out. As anyone who’s renovated an old house with even some level of care will likely tell you, it’s a huge undertaking. It’s a strain on everything—emotions, finances, time, creativity, motivation, muscles, relationships. Your whole life, pretty much.
So I’m 23, and I now own this once-beautiful house in this once-beautiful town. That’s harsh: both the house and the town retain a lot of beauty and much of their original character, but the passage of time has not always been kind. Periods of economic hardship have brought neighborhoods to the brink, and the rebound has often taken the form of absentee landlords picking up houses on the cheap, putting minimal money and care into them, and collecting their rent checks. If my house had needed less work just to get it operational, I have zero doubt that’s exactly what would have happened to it.
If you hear “small city in Upstate New York” and think rolling hills and small town charm, Kingston is likely not what you’re picturing. There’s a slice of that, but it’s not the whole picture. It’s got some grit. It has its problems. It’s not a wealthy city and there aren’t nearly enough jobs. The rent is too damn high. The litter is out of control. There are a lot of houses with a lot of problems. And it’s where I decided, fairly quickly, that I actually wanted to make my life—not commuting between here and Brooklyn, not trying to make ends meet with AirBnB income and constant hustle and jobs I’d never want if not for needing the money to support $22,000 a year in rent. And I saw something here that I wanted to be a part of. Not that Kingston is a problem to be fixed, but it’s a place where one person can get involved, get things off the ground, and make a difference in a tangible way. There’s community. I felt good here. At home here. It’s exciting and a little scary to put all your eggs in one basket that way, but I’ve never regretted it. This is where my life is. And I really want to do right.
Fast-forward 14 months. I’m still in the early renovation stages of my house, trying to figure out this whole how-do-I-make-money-in-this-place-thing. I had…this blog that had the traffic and available content to probably do really well if it were correctly managed. I had…some renovation ability, and the hope that I could convince people pay me to make their houses nice. I had…a home address in a place where houses still sold for the price of a mid-range SUV, and the unique ability to potentially offset renovation costs with sponsors who could provide materials, funds, or ideally both.
Remember what I said about some grit? While my own house is largely surrounded by multi-family apartment houses (some better managed than others), it’s a slightly different story just a couple of blocks down. This block had 3 condemned houses on it…out of 10 total. Of the seven habitable structures, only one was owner-occupied. In the summer, it was routine to look down the street and see the flashing lights of a police siren from my bedroom windows, either speeding toward or parked on that block. The neighbors related stories of hearing gunshots at night that woke up and scared their children.
Tucked into a little 23-foot wide lot was this wee house, set back from the street and obscured completely by overgrowth, with a condemned sign posted on the front door. It had recently been listed for sale by owner online but didn’t have a sign out front or anything, and when the real estate agent didn’t show up for the walk-through, he instructed me to just let myself in. Because the door was unlocked. And oh right, he was in California—a detail you’d think he might have mentioned when setting the appointment in the first place.
Nonetheless, an idea was born. If I could secure some financing to buy it and cover some of the renovation costs, I could use my Powers of Blog to cover various expenses through brand partnerships, which would in turn bring in more income that I could reinvest in the project or use to float myself financially through the several months of not getting a regular paycheck while I dedicated myself to it. At the end, this sweet little house would be nicely renovated on a street where it otherwise likely didn’t stand a chance (which also happens to be RIGHT BY my own house—which couldn’t hurt my own property value). More than that, it would be occupied—and as long as it made reasonable financial sense, by a new owner. This cute, nicely maintained house, now joining the other owner-occupied house (also very nicely maintained) would bolster the whole block—hopefully inspiring other prospective buyers to see the street in a better light and consider giving the other two condemned houses the type of care and attention they deserve. Maybe one of those prospective buyer could be me, doing it all over again. Neighborhood stabilization has to start somewhere, and who was in a more privileged position to get the ball rolling than me? I could be part of a solution.
It seemed like a great idea at the time. Famous last words, if you’ll excuse the cliché.
I made a mistake. I can see that clearly now. In August, I’ll have been living with that mistake for 5 years—an amount of time I couldn’t even fathom when I truly believed I could do this in six months.
What went wrong? A lot went wrong. And as much as I either hated to or couldn’t admit it at the time, a lot of what went wrong was me. It’s kind of the story of my 20s, and weirdly, it’s mostly laid bare in blog format. I’m hoping being aware of it leads to change. That owning these choices—and seeing them as choices rather than things that simply happened—will help prevent me from making similar ones in the future. It’s the kind of personal work I expect to be doing my whole life—but now, as I approach the big THREE-OH (stop laughing, I’m trying to get something off my chest!), I think I’m starting to see it a bit more clearly.
I overcommitted—problem number 1. Thinking I can take on WAY more than I actually can has been a life-long struggle that I used to play off as cute and plucky, but really isn’t anything to be celebrated. All it means is that you’re miserable. All it means is that you’re not doing anything well, including the things that matter the most because there’s just too much going on. I should not have taken responsibility for a second house a year after diving into a huge rehab project of my own. Some people manage this type of thing well, although exactly how remains something of a mystery to me. Having a partner to do it with, I assume, helps enormously—but that’s a lot of pressure to put on a relationship if you’re not both 1,000% into doing this kind of work. We weren’t. And soon we were done, and I was alone—two dogs, two houses, and a single, unreliable and variable income.
Things started out, by most standards on a project like this, fairly well. I tackled the exterior first, in large part to signal to the neighborhood that things were changing for this little eyesore and community hazard. That went mostly well, although we ran out of cooperative weather. We gutted the interior, too, which normally I’d consider overkill but the house had undergone at least one previous renovation and there was next to nothing worth preserving. We re-framed every interior wall according to plans I’d drawn up on the computer, since the layout was also not worth preserving.
Various members of neighborhood were so excited to see something being done, at a very good pace, with this guy—me—at the helm, who really seemed to give a shit. That guy—me—was giving people work. He was friendly with the neighbors, and sympathetic to their understandable dismay over the condition this house had been in for so many years. He’d chat with Miss Margaret from next door while she waited for her ride over to the grocery store or the doctor, and programmed his number into her flip phone with instructions to call if she ever needed anything (she did, once, and he was there in minutes). The pastor of the church down the street was ecstatic about the progress, and soon one of her volunteers was walking through the house, dreaming of buying it and starting her family there when the renovation was complete. One of the owners of the owner-occupied house had her sister by—she was getting older and looking to downsize and be closer to family; it was a perfect fit. The guy who lived below Miss Margaret allowed us the use of his hose at no charge, since there was no running water on site. Someone started dropping off pies from the grocery store—cherry, blueberry, apple—on the front stoop with notes of encouragement.
And then, as quickly as work began, it halted.
I screwed up in myriad ways. I thought I could manage a rag-tag crew who desperately needed the work, and I could not. I placed trust where I absolutely shouldn’t have. I naively put myself, my investment, and my things at risk—luckily, only the things saw any lasting consequences, although having various expensive items you rely on for your livelihood stolen by people you trusted even briefly is a real punch to the gut.
I thought I could make the blog thing work, but I couldn’t. Not at the time, anyway. I didn’t figure out how to make the time to actually create the content that would further increase the traffic that would drive the sponsors that would make the money. I’ve never been a professional blogger and I was, basically, flying by the seat of my pants. I should have asked for help. I should have done…something. I didn’t know where to start, or what kind of help to even enlist. Just having decent site traffic does not a living income make.
Worst of all—and impossible to admit at the time, but easier to stomach now—was that, frankly, I didn’t even really know how to renovate this house. I thought I did. The basic strokes, sure. But let’s remember: I have no formal training in this stuff. I’m self-taught. I was young, and had never taken on an entire home rehab like this—not even my own house qualifies, which I’d barely scratched the surface of anyway. And now I had a completely gutted shell I had to put back together, and I had a really hard time wrapping my mind around all the many, many ins and outs of making that happen. This is, in part, evidenced by my initial design decisions, wherein I didn’t include any plumbing chases despite plopping a bathroom in the center of the second floor. Or thought we’d heat the house with a forced air system, in spite of having no space for ducts or air handlers.
There was a leak in the gas line that took the utility company 8 months to repair because of the winter and the frozen ground. Somehow at the time I couldn’t fathom a way around that—the house was freezing cold, and without a heat system (which will run on the gas), there wasn’t really any reason to move forward with a plumbing rough in, and without that I really shouldn’t have the electricians in, either, and both of those things would hold up insulation and finishing work, and really the flooring should go in between the heat system rough and actually installing the radiators, since I can’t install flooring AROUND a cast iron radiator. And OH RIGHT now I have to source and procure a house-worth of cast iron radiators because I simply will not do baseboard radiators and the fact that forced air isn’t really an option is news to me, and this will hold up the plumbing rough-in because they need to know how big each radiator is to get the pipes in the right place.
So I read up on sizing cast iron radiators (there’s science and math there, it’s not just whatever fits the space best) and gathered them from far and wide. Two came, actually, from a reader. One came from my house. A couple came salvaged. The plumber who was going to do the work disappeared. The house was freezing. My relationship was ending. I was failing at the blog stuff. And this block of time—during which I thought I was going to be working on this house and, hopefully, recouping the money I had into it—was quickly expiring. And I had a shell. With an unfinished exterior, nothing but framing inside, and a collection of antique radiators with no plumber to make them actually do anything.
This entire plan, essentially, hinged on everything going basically right. On me knowing what to do when they didn’t. And it didn’t go right. And I continued to not know. While I had the financing available to renovate the house, I wasn’t making nearly enough to live off of while I did that. And girl’s gotta eat. And pay bills. Adult things. So I took a little freelance job that spring, thinking with the weather back on my side I could totally do this freelance house, continue the more pressing work on my own house, and really dive back into Bluestone. At the very least, I’d make myself a little bit of money from the gig, and at least be able to support my shit through the next phase of work.
That little freelance job turned into the beast that was Olivebridge Cottage.* It was a job we’d budgeted 8 weeks for, and when all was said and done it took almost two years of my life and resulted in, essentially, a brand new house that I was responsible for designing and building. The workload was immense, the pay was not enough, and it took over my life. Finding the time to blog regularly was incredibly hard, and site traffic steadily decreased accordingly. Hell, finding the time for much of anything was incredibly hard—work at my own crazy house slowed to a stand-still, and any illusions I had about being able to work on Bluestone at the same time as this gargantuan project were sorely misplaced. It’s a time thing and a logistical thing and an energy thing. Not enough hours in the day. Various tools are at another jobsite. No energy, mental or physical, to put in long hours at two construction sites everyday. So it sat. And it sat. And it sat.
*The Olivebridge project will come back around on the blog at some point. For now, the owners have respectfully asked me to take down posts about the house, lest it’s unclear to somebody reading about it that all the many problems we uncovered were resolved. I don’t necessarily share the concern but I do respect their wishes—it is their house, and they shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable with what’s out there about it. Blogging is still not my full-time job, and those posts in particular take hours upon hours to put together—which is the same time I have to write other posts that, basically, I’d rather be writing.
One of the other condemned houses got picked up for pennies at auction. In short order all the exterior rot was inelegantly covered in aluminum flashing, some work was undertaken on the inside, a For Rent sign went up in the window, and the newest absentee landlord on the block began collecting his rent checks. And I can’t even say a damn thing about it, because my piece of the block is still just sitting there, waiting. An empty shell.
Eventually, a plumber was successfully enlisted to perform the work of the rough-in. A deposit of 50% on the single biggest line item in the budget was handed over. It should have taken a week, tops. The first day got cut off by some emergency call, if memory serves, but it went well. The next day, he’d be back. That day turned into a week. Which turned into a month. Which eventually turned into 14 months of hounding, and them coming for a few hours, followed by more weeks or months of hounding, until the rough plumbing work was mostly complete and able to be inspected. Then he was unceremoniously let go. That piece of shit.
On the bright side, I love the new plumber. So there’s that.
I didn’t leave the Olivebridge project with a lot in my pocket, and at the tail end of it I all but destroyed my house in a fit of pent-up I-MUST-MAKE-SOME-PROGRESS-ON-THIS-HOVEL-BEFORE-I-LOSE-MY-MIND—another hideous error in judgment and delusion about how much I can pile on in a given period of time, not to mention the money it cost. Olivebridge was brutal. Then what I did to my house was brutal. What this did to my depression-prone brain was brutal. Plumber at Bluestone still being a garbage human. No progress over there. Everything was terrible, and I felt so stuck.
I’ve talked before about the anxiety-avoidance cycle I’m prone to fall into if I’m not careful. And it happened with Bluestone. How it starts:
I begin to look away when I drive by it. I don’t go over nearly enough to tend to the yard, where the weeds grow increasingly thick and tall. I don’t like to go inside, so I don’t. When I walk over, the neighbors ask where I’ve been, or what’s going on, and my answers are unsatisfying at best. I don’t know what to tell them. The time has gotten away from me. And I don’t really know what’s going on.
The guy who used to drop off pies drops notes instead, asking me to call him. He wants to buy it—not even in a predatory way, just in a let-me-take-it-from-here kind of way. He’s disappointed but kind. Everybody is disappointed but kind, really. I tell him honestly how much money has gone into the house, which doesn’t surprise him but does make the price rather high on a property that no bank would approve a loan for. It breaks my heart that I don’t even know what I’d do if he came to me with a check. I don’t want to abandon this project but I also wish it would go away.
I stop by less and less frequently. I look away more and more. My own house still feels terrible. That house, sitting down there, feels like death. It gets broken into during the winter, but I don’t find out until months later from the landlord next door. He is inexplicably nice to me. I would not be this nice to me—not even close. He tells me a lot of people were in the house. He and his son re-secured it so it wouldn’t happen again. He was surprised I didn’t know. Inside, a small fire had been set in a cast iron sink I’d set aside years before—with so much optimism—for the half-bathroom. They’d used lath as kindling. The sink was destroyed but nothing else—a miracle I don’t think is appropriate to describe as “small.”
It was devastating. Imagine if something happened. I sobbed. I felt sick. I’m precisely the problem I set out to solve. It’s a dark, dark feeling. The worst that I’ve ever felt about anything in my life, I’m pretty sure. Every part of me felt awful. And by association, so did Bluestone. It became the physical embodiment of Daniel, The Spectacular Failure. And it’s right. fucking. there. Inescapable. Unavoidable.
Miss Margaret died. I found out from the guy who let us use his hose. I’m quite sure seeing the house next door to her apartment get renovated was not her dying wish, but that she never got to see it reborn still makes me sad. The pastor has moved away, and her volunteer with dreams of a family did buy a house, somewhere else in town, where she now lives with her husband and their new baby. I get the sense she dislikes me now when we pass each other in the grocery store and whatnot, but I could be projecting. Or I could be right, and frankly, she has every right to. Even Methodists have their limits.
The third condemned house sold, a large Victorian divided a few decades ago into four apartments. Now, it will again be four apartments, just altered. They slapped a coat of paint on it, ripped out all the windows, ignored clear structural deficiencies, enclosed a porch, tossed the radiators, and removed the rafter ties so the second floor could be vaulted all the way into the attic space—so basically the roof might collapse with a heavy snowload now. The owner is an “artist” who lives…somewhere else. And, once again, I can’t say a goddamn thing about it, because at their pace he’ll be collecting rent checks before Bluestone has a working toilet, let alone a certificate of occupancy. And it’s my fault.
A year ago, I wrote this post. I wanted 2018 to be better than the prior few years. I needed it to. I needed to figure out how to get myself out of this mess and this cycle—of taking on freelance work I don’t necessarily even want that overtakes my life, of deluding myself into thinking I can do it all at once, of allowing this project—now a hazard unto itself—to get pushed off again and again.
I didn’t solve all my problems in the space of a year. But I was better. I know I was better, in ways measurable and not. I wrapped up one big freelance job, did another, and started a third that didn’t require as much of my time (still far more than I expected and/or quoted for, but that’s a whole other story). I asked for help with managing the blog stuff and, briefly, got some (although that’s also a whole other story, but I’m giving myself some credit for trying). I got my hair cut 10 times, and even though I missed two appointments it was still a personal record. That’s neither here nor there, but it was a 2018 resolution so I’m inclined to mention it.
Mostly, I hunkered the fuck down. I worked my ass off, from winter to spring to summer to fall and back to winter.
The lion’s share of this ass-that-got-worked-off, admittedly, was closer to home. Specifically, at home. It was a big year for my house—essentially, one of rebuilding. At the start of the year, it felt like ruins. Various spaces were gutted. No laundry. No kitchen. No pantry. Not enough heat. Incomplete exterior work. And just a phenomenal mess—too much stuff in too few rooms, disorganized, and plain dirty. There wasn’t really a choice but to roll up my sleeves and step up my game, so I did. I worked, and worked, and worked, and worked. I reacquainted myself with my own things, trying to remember what I’d loved and valued about them before they became dusty obstacles cluttering my life. I cleaned. I rearranged. I spread out—which sounds weird, since I live here alone, but I still catch myself feeling like this space isn’t entirely mine. Like I have to keep myself contained, small, hidden. I made hundreds of lists. Did I mention I worked a lot? And slowly, but not that slowly all things considered, it started getting better. Creating a laundry space made it easier to really care for my stuff again. Getting the kitchen to a point of basic functionality allowed me to reclaim my living and..
I know it’s only Wednesday, but it’s been one of those weeks, so in lieu of the home renovation content you probably came here for, let’s just look at photos of my cute dogs? Sound alright? Great. I wasn’t actually asking.
It’s been a month since I brought this little guy home, and Mekko and I just adore him. He’s so sweet, hilarious, smart, playful, and all-around just such a good boy! I feel like we really hit the puppy jackpot with him.
Potty training is going pretty well (some days are more successful than others), we’re all sleeping through the night, and a round of dewormers seems to have done the trick for the various intestinal parasites. He’s almost 14 weeks old now, and weighing in at about 16 pounds! Such a big man!
So far his hobbies include playing with his big sister, snuggling, being such a gentleman and also the handsomest boy, sitting on command, laying by the fire, and following me everywhere. He has a newfound interest in shoes that I am trying to discourage. So far he has been minimally destructive and I hope that holds.
It is incredibly difficult to get anything done. Everything he does is v v adorables.
Mostly, this burgeoning partnership between him and Mekko has just been a complete and utter joy to watch. She’s having so much fun with him around, and really seems like a happier—if more exhausted—dog. I really think they’re a good match, which of course is also a relief.
Look at that baby Mekko smile. Look at those nice neck folds.
Watching him develop is such a trip. It happens SO FAST. Little things change with his nose and markings daily. His eyeliner started coming in! There’s a new spot where there wasn’t before! His coat is all nice and shiny now, and very different from Mekko’s—like thicker and with an undercoat. I still think he’s at least half pit bull, but the speculation continues! Should we place bets on his adult weight? The DNA results?
Did I mention the cutest things happen all the time and I can hardly stand it? Because. See above.
Also here, both being very cute. High marks, dogs. Even though he’s practically doubled in size, he still does this thing when he jumps up on the bed, which is like rehearsing few practice leaps that don’t quite get him there, before he makes a bolder leap and kind of pulls himself up like he’s scaling a wall. Jumping on the higher couch or chairs do not seem to present the same challenge. Will report back.
I am not interested in human feet but I love these dog feet. Little toesies.
The other day I color-matched his belly and the color was called “Nice Berry.” Indeed.
He’s so soft. So so soft. With nice stretchy skin and delicious breath.
We—and by “we” I mean “I”—have decided he shall be called Bungee. Like a bungee cord, or a bungee jump. It seems to suit him and he seems to like it. So that is that.
Welcome, Bungee. I hope you like having your picture taken and your face kissed all over.