Progress and Increasingly Delicate Sensibilities

My dad came today and we got the lower part of the stairway wall primed!


Old house purists: before you bite my head off for painting my woodwork, the first floor interior is a Colonial Revival style remodel from the 1930’s and had always been painted. But getting it back to this point seemed insurmountable. Especially these scrolly things under the stair nosings. There was so much paint glooped up onto them that I used 3 different types of chemical stripper, then burned it off with a heat gun, and finally gave up and used sandpaper. I then primed it, which exposed more flaws, so I sanded it all again and primed it a second time. It looks pretty good now!


There are still imperfections to fix, including all the little nail holes in the paneling. But the paneling all needs to be sanded as the paint raises the grain of the plywood it’s made out of.

Once this is done, there’s another round of it upstairs. I didn’t do it all at once because (1) there is only so much prep I can stand to do in one go and (2) I wanted to get the downstairs painted before reinstalling the top 2 stair nosings, and then I have to close up the unfinished underside of the upstairs box newel.IMG_0724.JPG

And I’ll be replacing the 8 bottom balusters in the second phase after getting everything painted that they’ll block. (No, not restoring. It’s not worth the trouble for paint grade pine.)


But my sensibilities are getting delicate. I can no longer handle this bit of unpainted trim on the ceiling that was supposed to happen later with the upstairs banister. It’s now getting moved up into this phase.


What is happening to me that this is bothering me? Remember when I was sleeping in the kitchen? That was totally fine.


And then this project is about to collide with the Phase 2 kitchen cabinet fronts thanks to another flaw my delicate sensibilities can’t handle. The casings around the big opening between the living room and kitchen is just tacked up so it can be notched into the cabinet fronts later. But this is affecting the living room now because I’ve decided that the little strip of molding on the left side of the door opening is too skinny.


You see, I opened the wall, but emphatically wanted it to look like the wall was still there, just with a big doorway in it. I think that completely open rowhouses can feel relentlessly long and narrow and liked the proportions of this room as it was at the beginning. And right now this skinny rip of trim doesn’t feel like enough to hold up the corner of the room. It feels more like an outside corner than a wall. It will also balance better with the window on the other side.


So, I’ll be yanking off that that piece of casing that had been ripped down, pulling off everything that had been tacked in place on the kitchen side, facing the cabinets, installing a new wooden board over the old one to make the doorway like an inch narrower, and putting up a new, heftier rip of trim on the living room side. Luckily, this isn’t the expensive special order casing, though I will, sigh, be needing more of that later, too.

So, does this sound like a good idea to you, or do you think I need to be medicated? My thoroughly practical dad flinched, but then took a second look and said, “You know it really will look better if you come out about one and a quarter and cover up the side of the refrigerator.”

Shoddy Work Hall of Shame

I’m having a problem in WordPress – most of my pages are all fine when I edit them but don’t show up when I publish and I can’t figure out why. The house tour can stay broken for now, but the h.

Studs too short? Cut blocks of wood and/or stack up scraps of plywood to fill the gaps!

Don't even try to understand this one

Don’t even try to understand this one

Time to frame a wall. New wood or old? Let’s alternate them! (These studs are not the same size, but they didn’t screw the drywall into the studs anyway so it doesn’t matter)

I guess it looks cool get size, color, and texture variety with your studs

I guess it looks cool get size, color, and texture variety with your studs

Woodwork coming loose?  Don’t push it into place and re-nail it, just caulk! Cracked plaster? Just find a scrap of drywall to cover most of the cracks, and some of your woodwork! Just line it up between/on the surrounding trim, drive screws in wherever the spirit moves you, and you’re done! Radiators are totally solid so no one will ever notice.


And then there’s the caulk. So much caulk. I wasn’t strong enough to pull apart the caulk on the living room radiator covers; had to cut it.

Radiator cover removal

Radiator cover removal

Normally how do you handle finishing floors around the radiator? You’d use special sanders to get around the low clearance. How did the previous owner do it? His… people just skipped it. And when they dropped globs of joint compound, dirt, pennies, and other odds and ends under it, they just polyurethaned right over them. This is what it looked like after I gave it a thorough cleaning.


It looks like someone kicked in the door to the front bedroom at some point. The jamb was all busted out around the strike plate. To fix this, long screws were driven through the destroyed wood into nothing. And there’s a lot of caulk on it, of course.


Then there are the front bedroom windows:

P1040199 P1040198

So what exactly are we looking at here? Lots of holes, obviously, and gorilla glue! Inside that, we have a very cheap window installed so crookedly (in a wall that’s actually square!) that it doesn’t even close. There are scraps of who knows what stacked up to reduce the size of the opening, and there are 1×3′s, that’s framing grade lumber, not what you’d ever have for decorative purposes, attached right to the tops of the window sills. I know this woodwork won’t survive being taken down, but I’ll be able to replicate it. Not just yet though because the front windows are staying until the brick is restored. And until I can afford the windows I want. And when I feel like doing another project. That could be a while.

Then there are the radiators. More bad paint. More joint compound gloop.


And I don’t have the steadiest hand, but look at this job cutting in with the paint around the stairs.


And, when you install stucco, install the flashing to take water out and over it, not as corner molding to drive it into the wall.

Back 3

Back 3

Nana’s Condo – The Kitchen

I’m sorry my last post ended so suspensefully. Here’s the best material I’ve got from the condo, so I hope this makes up for it. To start, my parents (sometimes with my help) made some decisions about the kitchen to just get it done:

  • The cabinets, countertops, and appliances all came from Home Depot. There was no way my mom was lugging Nana to different stores all over the place.
  • They hired a contractor (who they are friendly with and have hired before) to fit out the room. His bid was well under the Home Depot contractors and he said afterwards that he had never worked in a high rise before and should have charged more.
  • The room is small, so we did away with the wall oven and put in a range to make it look bigger.
  • There was a clear wall opposite the cabinets that a lot of people take out. We left it intact but added a countertop with seating, a desk base cabinet with a file drawer, and wall cabinets for dishes. The convex mirror was on the other side – more important than an open kitchen.
  • All the plumbing ran through all the cabinets from a pipe chase in the dining area. A flexible gas line made the range possible, but we had to change the order of the appliances to make everything fit. (Here’s the old plumbing… and some pretty impressive rust stains.)
  • We raised the ceiling from the original 7-foot drop ceiling to 7′-9″. There’s a concrete slab 3 inches above that. My mom really wanted recessed lighting in here. She didn’t seem to get that recessed lights would get in the way of making the ceiling as high as possible. We had a fight, I won, and the room got 2 cute little schoolhouse fixtures and under cabinet lighting.

And here’s the new cabinets. You can see a paint line near the exhaust fan where the ceiling was and the shadow of the old oven cabinet in this corner.


One more weird detail: the old exhaust fan stuck out from the wall at an angle and both the duct and the grille were notched to fit around the cabinet. As you can see above, all this was now exposed.

We have lots of notches and filler strips to make this fit, so I wanted it to be a pretty elephant in the room. I picked up this fancy grille online and possibly in the bloggiest thing I’ve ever done, spray painted it oil rubbed bronze. (Also, I picked out the wall color and she yelled at me the whole time I was painting only to decide she liked it after all when I was done.)


First off, Nana laid into me while I was painting this room that the wall color I picked was too dark. “Well you’re not the one who’s gonna have to live with it!” Thankfully, she liked it once I was done.

Now we’ve got a kitchen that’s nice enough  but just a little bland. The oil rubbed bronze hardware, caramel colored paint, fake granite countertops, and bamboo floors were all just a bit generic. The room needed color, and I was thinking of the wallpaper she used to have. She loved this wallpaper. (Picture circa 1985)

Nana's Kitchen 1984.jpg

One more view of the space recycled from an earlier post:

Mom and Dad with red armoire

Also, I didn’t want to strip the wallpaper from the backsplashes. And I certainly didn’t want to repaper them. That’s not nearly durable enough. My solution was tin ceiling panels. I went over them with a thin nap roller just dampened in red paint so it only painted the raised design. (First I repainted them to match the walls.)


On the breakfast bar side, I put up a bulletin board made of Homasote wrapped in gingham fabric. If you do this, use a pattern that’s not geometric. Getting the lines straight was no fun.


And one more before/after.



We can play a game and try to spot all the things I took.


Throwback Thursday: Forcing a Fixer Upper on an 88 Year Old

We’re going back about 8 years. My mom had wanted my grandmother to downsize for about as long as I can remember, but come hell or high water, Nana was staying put. In fact, she complained constantly that it was too small.

Nana's House.jpg

She was 40 minutes away (without traffic), had to carry her laundry up 2 flights of steps (only up, as she put it in trash bags and threw it down), and of course there was the lawn care. She stopped driving, but since my mom was taking good care of her that wasn’t enough either. It was only when, at 87, she fell off the porch that she agreed it was time to move.

I can remember that my mom took her to look at townhouses and age segregated developments years ago. High on Nana’s list of must haves was a formal dining room. Any arrangement combining it with the living room was a deal breaker. And since she was coming to a more expensive area, that brought her search to an end about as close as it began.

But by this time she was ready to move into something sensible. A sturdy high rise just a mile and a half from my parents, and in a nerdy college town. (Image courtesy Carrie Piccard) A fun coincidence – back when they lived in West Philly, she and her siblings would hike out here. There was an inn on the site and they could rent canoes.


We took on condensing her stuff to what would fit into half the living space she was used to – and you might remember that we just finished getting rid of the rest last summer.

And we arm twisted her into buying the most run-down unit in the building. To her, it was a dump! She couldn’t use that word enough. To us, it was a great bargain and the work it needed was hardly anything at all. Plus, the renovated units were mediocre and this one had one of the best views in the building.


She saw: a slightly rusty avocado kitchen and a note taped to the cabinets that the association shut the gas off because it was leaking.


We saw: a dreadfully low ceiling. My dad said, “Here lemme lift you up” and he whisked me up. We communicate semi-verbally like that. There was also nothing up here except lights. They installed a 7 foot drop ceiling basically just to have a room size light box.


Elsewhere, she saw dingy paint and nasty carpets. We saw: things that she’d want to change no matter where she went.


She saw dingy bathrooms. We saw that there were 2, they both at least worked, and the tile was inoffensive. (The joint compound was my doing.)


And so, with her place on the market and this place bought, we had 6 months to get it finished. And by we I mean mostly my parents – I was finishing up in school. A couple times we brought her with us. She’d just sit looking in horror and then shout, “It’s a dump!”




Back to Work?

I’ve had a great time doing things that are not remodeling. Really. But I also want to get some things done sooner or later. Plus, I didn’t have a lot going on this weekend, so it was back at it. I was staring at dust bunnies under a table in the living room a couple days ago. The old plan was to tackle those. The new plan? Sand the banister.

A refresher: in October 2015, in one of my biggest screwups ever, I carefully set aside a fragment of wood. But I didn’t wrap it in tape and tag it “save” so my dad threw it away.


And so, instead of finishing this before the floors were done when it would have made sense, I abandoned it. Then, my friend gutted his house and gave me what I thought was the perfect material  to make a patch. (I believe this banister was an off the shelf product in the 1930’s because it’s  all over the city. Note that this one is a mirror image.)


The Irishman fixed the disaster with a whole lot of wood filler, and I let the banister go like this for a year and a half. It’s still better than the drippy candle faux finish a previous owner applied.


But anyways. I did a lot of sanding. And I put down a lot of sheets and masking tape. Yawn. The Irishman put a big dent in the railing at some point and remembered it when my sandpaper got down here.


And so I steamed it out. Pretty simple procedure. Dribble the dent with water, cover with a wet paper towel, then iron it. Repeat like 30 more times. I probably ironed more yesterday than in the last 5 years combined.


But it worked pretty well! There’s still a small dent though after I sanded it out it was hard to tell. Also, shout out to my roommate for getting these really flattering shots of me.


And then came the finishing! I used what I got for the doors upstairs, General Finishes High Performance Topcoat dyed Brown Mahogany. My thinking there was that it would penetrate the wood less and camouflage mismatches between old and new wood better, and be less blotchy if any remnants of original finish were still in place.


The balusters and newel are paint grade and will be off white like all the other trim, and the balusters that spiral around the volute have to go back in. Hopefully my motivation is sticking around for a while. I also have no interior doorknobs that work right except my roommate’s bedroom and the bathroom.

4 Year Anniversary Tour – The Exterior

I haven’t done anything to the front yet, but the plan is to restore it as close as possible to its original appearance. I’ll restore the original brick and marble, eliminate the plague of aluminum siding and awnings, restore or replicate the original wood trim, install wood windows (new or old). You can read more about this process here, here, here, and here.

Let’s pretend this other house is my after, though I plan to 2-tone the cornice and not have white paint on the marble.

The back started off in this grim state. The big square bay was wood framed with very crudely applied modern stucco. The rest is load-bearing brick protected with a thin layer of older stucco. Plus, rusty plumbing stack, rusty downspout, and tangle of cables.

But it got worse quickly when I started enlarging the back bedroom window and discovered how poorly the stucco was installed on that bay. Under it were 3 layers of asphalt siding, and these were damp! If you look carefully at the closeup of the bay, they installed flashing like corner molding, so it channels water INTO the wall. Then below this was the original siding, some of it rotten, nailed right to the studs. So fun times, off it came.

So this was a nice sized extra project when I was already in the middle of that back bedroom. I got the rotten clapboards replaced with new plywood sheathing and all of it wrapped in tar paper and let it go. And then came the polar vortex, the downspout froze solid and I had icicles inside! What a pleasant surprise for the day insulation was supposed to get blown in.

So when it came time to side it we overdesigned it absurdly. Lots of tar paper, flashing, indestructible cellular PVC trim sealed to the brick with silicone (to be eventually embedded into new stucco), and a 3/4″ air gap behind the siding that’s vented so if water does get in, it should stay on the outside of the tar paper. The wood strips are marine grade for nailing the siding into.

Speaking of siding, I was too snobby for vinyl even on a barely visible spot on the rear second floor, so I used HardiPlank. This is almost as nice looking as wood and more durable. The wider siding is not period correct but I figured it was less to install and my parents might want to use my leftovers. I had already committed to white trim and painted the siding a color that I learned is Wedgwood blue, not navy. The beadboard underneath is light blue to try to make this closed in urban space look cheery.


And here’s what it looks like now. The original stucco was in lousy shape and I was on a budget, so where I altered old window openings we filled them with whatever and I’ll have it all stuccoed later. You can also see that the patio door job involved ripping off some of the beadboard. I’ve been lazy lately but maybe I can get it fixed this year. Also, sorry Ross, but yes my ceiling fan has a light.

When this is all done, the plan is to have trim around the patio doors just like the windows above, have the stucco white or very light grey to reflect as much light into the living room as possible, and most importantly, I want a texture that looks like it belongs on an old house. What texture I get doesn’t much matter. The back of this house has no architectural style to speak of. It just needs to look old. The idea of a McMansion stucco texture on my house is enough to give me night sweats.

4th Anniversary Tour – Back Bedroom

The back bedroom, oh my. At the start it was tiny, the floor had a terrible slant (normally I’m okay with crooked floors but this was too much), and the closet was once again 12 inches deep.


Back bedroom

Let’s not forget the horror story of the wall behind the radiator. Whoever did this can’t have been sober. It didn’t look this bad in the before pic, did it?


Moving the bathroom made this room 34 inches longer, or about 12 ½ x 9 feet, plus an alcove where the closet used to be, making half the room 10 feet wide. You can still see the footprint of the bathroom in this picture of the new closet


There were some unique challenges in here, like marrying new framing into old when we made 1 window into 2. And the new studs warped so we had to clamp them back into place.


And we put custom cut sleepers on top of the original joists to level the floor while still allowing the exposed beams in the kitchen downstairs.


Then I glued down the original pine floors (which were under the oak in the before pic) onto the new subfloor, plus a bit of extra wood I had to buy.


And are you ready for this one? A sloped ceiling designed expressly to fit the salvaged doors I had already bought. Here’s the deal. Rowhouses have low slope (not actually flat) roofs, so when this house was built, a level ceiling was framed out at a different height in each room. I measured the bathroom ceiling since this end of the bedroom was then the bathroom, which had a higher ceiling. See how the break in the ceiling slope lines up with the corner where the closet was? I was obsessed about that detail. Also, I left the exposed brick where the closet had been so you can see the original low ceiling. The chimney is abandoned and was for the original stove, so I guess that hole was to heat the bedroom with kitchen exhaust?



This also meant that the center of the room has a level ceiling which allowed me to use a flushmount light fixture. This one was a bargain at Philadelphia Salvage. I needed a flushmount in here because the ceiling is about 7’-9” so I was grateful to find something that didn’t suck or cost hundreds of dollars.


I was emphatic that the jamb extensions and casings needed around the windows needed to come down in the middle so I could inside mount two sets of blinds. This was hard to do but the Irishman came through.


And I painted the room green because I wanted a color that brought out the really great morning light. I didn’t think I liked this color while I was painting but now that it’s on the walls it’s perfect. It looks bright in the morning and quiet in the evening. And the doors, also from Philadelphia Salvage, are 1930’s Georgian. Not quite right for the house, but just the right size.


I also scored a third knob matching what came with the closet doors and put it, incongruously, onto the Victorian door into the room. Remember: door hardware is the most important thing in the world, but I haven’t finished installing it anywhere in the house.


I had the room entirely furnished with leftovers. Every piece is a different age, style, and type of wood, and I really loved it just like that. The braided rug was very good quality; the comforter was by some cheap brand like Dorm Essentials. It’s showing its age after 5 short years in college but gets the job done.

Now, I’ve had this room rented to a friend since last Easter. Yes, she moved in Easter Sunday. So here it is as it appeared right before that.

Then a reader mailed me curtains! Thank you Mary Elizabeth! (Also note my friend’s bed in the room. I’d say the biggest downside of having a roommate is having to store the bed I had in my bedroom.)


And I scored this lamp during one of my grandmother’s several moves.


My roommate wants to live on her own sooner or later, but since it’s never too early to plan, feel free to weigh in on finishing off the room now.