Category Archives: Kitchen Renovation

Cabinets are Done! Dirt Remains.

With help from my dad, I’ve gotten a LOT done. Between how slowly I work and how many flaws I find in these cabinet doors, I never thought I’d see the day. Now, I did have to stop painting a bunch of times because I kept spotting more flaws to grind out with the sander. But somehow, we reached the end of it! This means I did touch-up painting on all 7 of the base cabinet doors and then (my dad) rolled a final coat onto them. The upper cabinet doors were in worse shape so they got 2 coats. And now?


They look clean and in good condition! What a relief! And what a long time coming. And the dish cabinet is painted blue and has its plate rails and doors!


The project was annoying to the end. I repeatedly had to stop painting because I discovered that doors were cut too big and rubbed against each other, so I had to grind them down with the sander immediately before painting them. The most annoying of these was the trim at the top of the big interior arch. I knew it wouldn’t clear the cabinet door and asked the Irishman to run it through the table saw before he reinstalled it. He proudly told me that it was just fine. Now the corner is ground back a little. I guess it’s all the same in the end?


Speaking of which, I got 1 coat of paint onto that arch. That may not count as done but it looks a whole lot better. I also got one coat onto the little scrolly brackets under the stairs and the paneling. Except the panel with the light switch and everything to the right of it including the basement stairway door got 2 coats, including the basement stairway door. Meaning the things that matter.


Why do they matter? Because this wall has a switch plate, an outlet plate, and a thermostat mounted to it.


And there’s Art Deco hardware on the basement stairway door. Old door hardware is the most important thing in the world. Literally.


Then I was cooking and got sick of how hard it was to open the cabinet doors, so I put all the knobs on instead of cleaning up after myself.


Speaking of touchups, they might be the only kind of painting I can stomach for a while. I had wanted to stain the patio door and paint its jamb and trim this fall, but I’ve now wrapped up a tedious project that took over the whole house for the third time this year and I’m sick of it. But I guess you’ve heard that line before. The patio door and window sashes might actually be hard to do though because I’ll need warm weather to take them down and paint them.

And… the last step is done now! I got the 2 glass doors back from Malvern Glass, and they really went over and beyond. The woman I spoke to quoted me $13 a pane to cut the glass in rectangles, plus $10 per corner (a total of $80!!!) to clip the corners off because the irishman left the notches for the glass rounded with a router. But she said that slightly undersized square panes would fit and save me money. Then installation would be another $35 a pane, which I was unwilling to pay. Well, I got the glass back and the glass cutter rounded off all the corners to make it fit and taped it in place because on these crudely made doors every corner is a little different. I caulked the glass in place with clear silicone and used every bit of willpower I had to resist the urge to put them up last night. Then tonight I went at it rinsing dust off of crystal again instead of more practical jobs.


Last week the idea of being on a house tour was scary. Now, I’m thrilled with how much more finished things are. All that’s left is enough dust to write your name in my furniture, a bag of (non-perishable) groceries I bought a week ago, and a large wad of un-folded laundry on the couch. And there are still tickets available for this beer tour, so if you’re anywhere near here you should come! For $45 you get basically all the beer you could want, a lot of good food, a souvenir mug, and a chance to win prizes at my house and 4 others nearby. It’s a nice mix of food, drink, nice people, and voyeurism.

The Kitchen – A First Look

All right, the dust has settled in my brain and been (mostly) cleaned out of my living room. Where does this leave us? Well, the kitchen looks more or less finished! Big sigh!


So let’s talk about what I’ve got and why. Painted slab doors. I was emphatic that the kitchen be plain. I wanted this partly because I’m a messy cook – ask me about that time I tried putting ganache frosting onto a hot cake in my parents’ kitchen with beadboard cabinet doors.

And I did it partly to be as unlike the horror of super ornate kitchens as I could. (Even more horrifyingly, this is a 1926 neo-Georgian that surely had some architectural value before it was redone in the style of the Trump Taj Mahal.)

villanova kitchen

I balked at Shaker style doors even though I like them because I don’t trust that they’ll stay in style, and there’s still a little bit of grooves co clean melted ganache out of. But flat doors and all that white had me afraid it would be boring. Now that it’s mostly done though I’m totally fine with it. The upper cabinets will get the same chrome knobs as the lowers and the patio doors will be stained darker. I have drywall soffits because I wanted the cabinets tight to the ceiling and the beams slope.

The toe kick runs right under the dishwasher, which makes it look like it’s floating. The dishwasher is up on blocks because the floor is so low over here. The door threshold juts out from the wall and runs past the door under the cabinets because there was a gap in the flooring near the old door.

The stove is up on blocks, too, so now it has a toe kick of its own, painted white. The Irishman thought I was crazy for wanting it white. I thought he was crazy for wanting it blue. Now he says I need to repaint it real white instead of the off white I’ve used everywhere else. I probably will eventually.

The end of the peninsula gets one big panel spanning the 2 cabinet heights, 2 floor heights, and floor slope. The plywood riser between the 2 countertops will be white until I add backsplashes.

Remember how I thought this piece of trim was too skinny?


The door opening is now 3/4″ narrower. The way it was before would have been even worse on the kitchen side than the living room side.


Now to finish the room, I’d like to get the painting done this year, though countertops, shades or curtains, and backsplashes will have to wait. My mom wants me to paint the trim the same blue as the lower cabinets. I’m thinking I’m happy with the room being a bit plain, but it was an idea. Colored trim works just fine in her house.


But as the idea intrigued me and I feel like showing off the fact that I don’t have crappy vinyl windows, I’m thinking of painting the window sashes over the sink blue.


And in a year or 2 we can figure out livening the space up with the missing bits. Mainly counters and backsplash tile, but I’m also thinking of putting in roller shades made of patterned fabric and wood valences to hide the rolls. Of course, just because I can’t finish the room this year doesn’t mean you can’t volunteer ideas for it.

And, one more shot from the living room side because I don’t get things this tidy every day. I still want to paint the inside of that cabinet blue. And get glass in the doors.


April Fools! And yay for organized storage!

First of all, that last post was totally fake. Maybe my April Fools jokes are too subtle, but if you may notice that I did many, many things that were not cost effective to try to preserve or recreate my house’s character, and the facade is the very last thing I would want to modernize. If the original one fell off I’m not sure what I’d do but short of that it stays, period. And although I’m not wholly against panel siding, it’s gotten to be an unimaginative cookie cutter look. According to the architecture column in the Philadelphia Inquirer, it is “now the default on developer-built apartment buildings. That isn’t architecture; it’s a colorful form of weatherproofing.” (Incidentally, she said that here, rightly skewering a bland replacement for an art deco landmark.)

Back to the real world, my plywood drawer fronts are coming along! I told you about a lot of what got the place ready for a roommate but left out the most important part: the first 7 kitchen drawers. I’m putting as many drawers as possible in my base cabinets and it’s amazing. To make them fit, I went to IKEA and measured out the real ones. Then I had to drill out the backs to make them look like store bought fronts. And I made a lot of mistakes, most of which don’t show.


Before everything was either inaccessible or sitting out in clay pots. They were kinda charming and definitely the best I could do at the time.


And now I have this!


So the flat plywood fronts are working out better than I thought they would. I screwed up drilling holes into a few of them so I have a little patching and repainting to do but for now it’s much, much improved. And I love the way things fit now. So much.

Like these drawer dividers. They look like filing cabinets, but in a good way. And they really help things fit together.


And this drawer that is JUST the right size!



And this empty strip of countertop! The 4 drawers next to the dishwasher just went in today. They weren’t as important as the first 7 until the first 7 went in and I really wanted to finish the job.


Plus getting the upper cabinets cleared out and organized. It looks like I have room for china now! (I also got the exhaust fan vent hooked up, finally.)


Seriously, it’s so great.


And I’ve started to sorta arrange the crystal in the display cabinet! Ignore the pile of candles.


I kinda wanted to bring over china right away, but it was clearly smarter to hold off on that. I want to add little bits of trim to the shelves in that cabinet above so I can stand up plates in the back. And then I think I’ll paint it the same blue as my fronts and maybe get brave and make homemade glass doors. Am I up to the task?

And what do we say about the brass knobs? I’ll need to buy 4-6 more to finish off the lower cabinets.


Odds, ends, and cabinet colors

So the painting is still happening, and none of it is quite wrapped up yet. And my roommate is moving in Easter Sunday. That’s in 10 days. And then things unrelated to the house started going wrong and I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. The good news is, my roommate doesn’t care (particularly since I offered her a discount if the place is wrecked) and I’m taking tomorrow off. So let’s get on to the actual progress.

Most importantly, this weekend my dad and I built the Phase 1 kitchen drawer fronts! And they’re multiplying! First there were going to be 3 or 4 but now I’m up to 12. There were just enough scraps of cabinet grade plywood to make them all although 2 of them have the grain running in the wrong direction.

The DIY work for these  (before assembly) is cut, sand, prime, sand, prime, sand, paint, paint. I got the first coat of primer on one side of all of them and hope to be all done by Sunday so I can de-clutter and organize the kitchen next week. But I think 2 coats of primer will be especially important with the 2 drawers with vertical grain.

Then there’s the other question with these – what color to paint them. All my upper cabinets and 2 of the lowers are still going to be open and I won’t be styling the shelves, so this is still going to look a little makeshift and utilitarian. I thought about putting a kinda bright color on to just have fun with a space that doesn’t matter. I also want it to look good with my temporary countertops.


The problem is that lighter colors don’t really work with them and darker colors are impossible with the ProClassic paint I want to use. It’s really great for cabinetry and stuff. And in the mid-toned colors, everything seemed to be either too bright or too grey. I think I’m liking this one – and the coordinating colors even look like what I already have.


A friend of mine said that the color looks like it would go in a room that’s modern with rustic elements. That’s definitely not my house but it sounds more like some ideas I had for it before. I think I like it, but what do you think? And remember, this is for the lower cabinets only and I’m not committing to it forever. Am I making a mistake to not just go even brighter for fun?

Then I need hardware, and obviously I need it to be cheap. The best bargains I can think of are my parents’ oval brass knobs. They have lots on cabinets in their laundry room, but I’d need to put something cheap in to replace them.


Or, I have 7 of these yellow porcelain knobs from the furniture that was in my room when I was a babyimage


But what I’m thinking may really best is that my friend’s parents have a bunch of circa 1953 chrome pulls that a previous owner took out of the kitchen and left in the basement. I talked them out of throwing them out, so they may be fair game if I ask, right?


Closing down the sawdust factory… and making room for a party!

Yep, that’s a big change isn’t it? Once I got used to having nice woodwork everywhere I realized that I had very few big things left that needed to be cut up. There were the countertops, and then everything else is small enough to do in the basement. So we got some odd jobs done. Shampooed a rug, my sister did some painting, and her boyfriend and I cut up my countertops into all the pieces I need to fit my kitchen. They need a little work to be installed right, but the messy part is done.


So as soon as that was done, we brought in 4 cars full of stuff over 2 days. The Suburban wasn’t available to me, but I’ll call this Moving Day Number 5. I crapped up the dining room table immediately.


My policy was always to take all the free kitchen stuff I could get and now I have an awful lot of things so this seemed like the way to make sense of it all. I had to wash construction debris off a lot of it. But somewhere around this point I was getting texts from friends who wanted to see each other on New Year’s Eve. So I said, “Why not come for dinner at my house and stay over?” And would you believe that my friends said yes?

I fiendishly unpacked, washed, and put away all my stuff. I cut shelves down for the custom sized wall cabinets. I put things on shelves. I found the hardware for my bed, assembled it while Tame Impala sang “It’s getting closer” to me on the radio.


I took a moving box full of my grandmother’s Pyrex dishes to the hole in the wall Indonesian restaurant on the corner and then set up a makeshift food warmer. One of my friends said I’m too classy for the


My brave friends had warm clothes and were ready to camp out in a construction site. But instead, they walked into this!


When they walked in I was on a ladder vacuuming the sawdust I forgot about off of the lights in the upstairs hall. This looking like a house thing continues upstairs! But the civility ends a few inches east of the antipasto.


That is Courtesy the Italian store around another corner. Remember, I didn’t just move to South Philly for the fun of having a small house with a tiny yard and no parking. And here are my guests, looking not too traumatized. Don’t tell my grandmother I didn’t use the table pads.


Just before midnight we took a walk, and had the pleasure of watching idiots burning their Christmas trees in the middle of an intersection with tons of lighter fluid (they even threw in the bottle) and no street closures. And of course no cops came because this is Philadelphia. Just drive around it.


We stuck around until the really loud explosions started (still not sure what that was) but there was no crater on this corner at the end of our walk.

There’s a bit of a dark side to having a dinner party with no kitchen sink though. I’ll leave you with this. Happy New Year!




The Irishman Giveth, The Irishman Taketh Away

To be fair, he didn’t actually take anything from me. He gave me 3 great days this week. I think that’s it, so lots of stuff is done, but there’s chaos everywhere and I’ve left it where it was for 4 days. Because there was this holiday I totally ignored. Then I decided not to ignore it on Christmas Eve and threw just enough together to save face.

So, Monday he came and we got the dryer vent pipe through the corner cabinet. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. He bored through a wire. Panic ensued, but we were able to free it from the spray foam with enough slack to add a junction box in the cabinet and everything is fine. Tedious, but it’s done! You can barely even see this stuff with the carousel in place.


Then he installed the higher base cabinet for that room divider I was talking about and all the woodwork in the living room! We actually have more done now including the trim at the top of the big opening, but I forgot to get a picture. I opted for dish storage on this side of the peninsula because I don’t really like stools, but this is high enough that I can eat standing if the table is set. That means it’s too high for short people.


Some of you were a little confused about my wordy description of the awkward corner where the peninsula has 2 heights and wraps around the pipe chase and door casing. Here’s what it looks like in real life. Not so bad, right?


And here’s the best view I have of the whole room. I have enough of that Formica to splice on pieces at both ends of the L you can see, and to do one side of the stove. The other side of the stove is going to get more of the free oak I have on the bar top. I think I’ll want the oak to the right near the door. Sometime later I’ll upgrade the work areas to all one material but probably keep the oak bar top for good. Do you agree with all this?


Then, remember how the floor slants? Well, my counters are near the standard 36 inch height at one end of the room, but then over here they’re a solid 3 inches higher. Which I love. But it means that the whole kitchen is not for short people. And then my wall cabinets are so high I can’t reach them without a stool. But my 9 foot ceilings are basically the only place where my house gave me more than minimum sizes (or below today’s minimums) so I have to use it. I’ll also need to shim up these cabinets a weensy bit.


There are a lot of loose ends to tie up but overall I’m pretty happy!

Maybe another big job – advice please

I was pondering that back door threshold and a thought entered my mind. Possibly a crazy one, possibly totally sane. Should I rebuild the kitchen floor from scratch?

I took 7 vinyl floors out of my kitchen and found old (but not original) pine underneath.


The plan was always to have it sanded. But here’s the deal: my friend Chris told me that the pine floor in his kitchen is holding up poorly, and I have a feeling that mine is a similar material. (My upstairs pine floors are older and I believe harder than what’s in the kitchen.)

I always said dismissively that if the floors don’t hold up well I’ll replace them later. But the low corner of the kitchen floor is about 2 ½ inches lower than the high one. There’s no structural problem here; unlike Portland cement masonry, lime based masonry can settle without losing strength. South Philly used to be a swamp, so this is kind of a common thing around here. And although I can feel the slope, it doesn’t bother me at all. You see the sub-title to my blog. I wanted a quirky old Philadelphia rowhouse, and obliterating all the quirks is not the adventure I wanted.

So why am I considering this now? Because making a raised threshold to cover this awkward gap and bridge the level-to-crooked transition will take some work. Then installing cabinets and appliances on the crooked floor is more work.


Leveling the floor would raise it to cover that vertical strip of wood under the patio door and the horizontal threshold under it.

Then there’s a structural reason. Apparently someone had to get something big in or out of the kitchen because there was an opening cut through here. The home inspector told me to sister these joists, but I put it on the long list because it doesn’t seem structurally unsound now.


But if I level the floor, out comes everything. Then I will sister all the joists, and the sisters will go in level and support the new floor. This will be much easier than what we did in the back bedroom. Let’s look at a pro con list though. I kind of shudder at the idea of another project.


  • No threshold at the back door.
  • Easier to install cabinets and appliances.
  • Slope may bother guests and other occupants.
  • A level floor may be better for resale.
  • Doing more now means less disruption later and an easier job overall.


  • More work now means more work now.
  • A level floor and plywood subfloor erases some of the house’s weirdness.
  • The Irishman gets to say I told you so.
  • More pressure to commit to a permanent kitchen floor right away.

Now about that last point, some people have urged me to put down ceramic tile. I don’t want anything that hard and cold, so that’s probably not happening. I would consider vinyl or linoleum as long as it’s plain and not printed with the image of something more expensive. The vinyl tiles I had in school would be fine. Or I could run the same oak strip flooring as I have in the living room through the kitchen. Or I could have a small bump between the rooms and use thicker tongue and groove oak, which ironically would be cheaper. And if I can’t decide, the plywood subfloor will be fine for now.

So what do you think I should do?

The Kitchen: Released for Construction

This is the weekend when the pope comes to Philly, and I’ve made plans to get out of Dodge. But that doesn’t mean nothing is happening to my house. The Irishman has the opposite plan: he’s not leaving South Philly, and he’ll be keeping busy by doing (the top half of) my kitchen! I put together a few last minute sketches to discuss exactly how the cabinets will meet the walls. He asked for a little more detail than I provided in the crude sketch I made before. And then when I remembered that we had this stamp at work, I COULD NOT RESIST.


Will this come together without a hitch? Well… have a look!


But I have another problem. I can’t afford appliances. The stove was in rough shape to begin with so I didn’t bother protecting it when I tore the kitchen ceilings down and now it’s really bad.


But my friend Eugene came to the rescue. He lives about 3 blocks away in a house very much like mine, though it’s bigger. And he just got a loan for a total gut remodel that’s set to begin in October. So here you’re looking at my new kitchen! Sorta. I’m now taking his countertops, sink, faucet, and garbage disposal. Pretty exciting! So these countertops will definitely go in my Phase 1 kitchen. The appliances likely will, too, but I have other options. It comes down to which stove is worse.


For the appliances, I was just gonna let them all be white until I saw that he just has a normal range hood. So no matter what I use, the black over-the-range microwave that came with my house is going in. His stove is a little better than mine but it’s not great. I have a black dishwasher and a stainless steel fridge available to me if I want them… and I don’t have a lot of time to choose as both sets are coming out of places that are being gutted.

As for the counter tops, remember that granite that’s still sitting on my parents’ driveway? The one that caused us to put a dent into my parents’ car? Now all that was for nothing because I decided it’s not even worth the trouble of cutting up to reuse. It’s going on Craigslist once I know for sure. And it gets a little worse. My dad sealed the driveway, and the granite was too heavy to move so he just painted around it. So when the slab disappears there will be a very obvious mark there. At the very least, it makes me smile that I’ve turned my nose up at granite and taken beat up powder blue Formica.


The last kitchen cabinet plan?

Maybe the last you’ll hear if the uppers anyway. For like 2 days I could walk around my living room. It was so great. Then I cleaned up the basement and that went away. So I want to burn through a lot of the crap that’s sitting out everywhere by (1) installing all the cabinets and shelves and then (2) putting tools in said cabinets and shelves. So I’m doing the top half of my kitchen. I don’t own the rest yet.

Looks wise, I’m emphatic that the kitchen is a work room and if form and function are in conflict, function wins. I want to work and store things in here. But once those are taken care if, of course looks matter.

You might remember this rough sketch of my wall cabinets on the stove/fridge side. I’m putting in 4 foot tall wall cabinets to get as much storage as possible, putting a deeper cabinet over the fridge, and installing an over-the-range microwave. The first plan was to stack small cabinets over big ones, which I think is normally the more attractive way to do it, but I was never sure if I liked the cabinet doors bouncing up and down like this.

Elevation Stove Side

It’s not that bad. Not like the advertisements granite fabricators put in Clipper Magazine showing kitchens that look like casino lobbies with horrors like carved corbels, Corinthian columns, and elaborate ogee countertop edges. It doesn’t have apothecaey drawers or wine racks or staggered caninets that look like a Chichen Itza that wants to be a hutch. Over the range microwaves aren’t pretty, but they aren’t pretending to be 18th Century mantles like some range hood covers do.

But it’s not as plain as I wanted. Something is still off. So when Ross (a reader with an amazing blog of his own) suggested flipping this and putting the 30 inch cabinets on top instead, I was thrilled to see a defiantly plain, orderly row of wall cabinets that still accommodates the practical things I want. And most importantly, it won’t cost me a penny more.

Kitchen Cabinets Without Up Down

The other side of the kitchen is going to get the same treatment with cabinets flanking the window. I am not fond of disrupting the shapes of rooms with pipe/duct chases or closets, but I did have to have one visible chase in the kitchen. But on the bright side, the chase centered the window!


You can see that my 1930’s reproduction woodwork is up. The Irishman had his co-worker make a custom knife to match the old trim and then mill all this out of scrap wood for a scandalously low price. I’ve already committed to custom doors on my wall cabinets because IKEA doesn’t make all the cabinet sizes I wanted, so I’m going to cut the cabinets on this wall down to whatever width I think gives the awesome trim enough breathing space. I’ll have big cabinets stacked over little again, but I could consider having 4 foot tall doors made and scrapping the stacked look. I have options.

So much win with the Irishman

I had very little to do with any of this. Except I went to the Home Depot 5 times this weekend. I’ve been waiting for my next door neighbor, a master carpenter, to be free to work for me on Saturdays. After 4 false starts I was starting to get pissed (but this is what contractors do, right?)

So what happened? The bathroom door! This is the only one that won’t be in the way of the floor finishing. It’s also the one I really want. I can always say, “Stay downstairs, I’m taking a shit.” But having a door brings the place to a new level of classiness. Up to below-average!


And…. he put up the rim lock! I took like 30 photos of this door. Here’s another for you. I took like 30. And opened and close the door about 100 times.


So you know my house is old. My walls are weird thicknesses. My doors are from Philadelphia Salvage and they’re not square and they’re weird thicknesses too. So when I say custom, I mean building jambs for crooked doors installed in crooked walls over crooked floors. He said, “Ya buys couldn’t frame fer shit.” I said, “Who?” and he snapped back, “You and yer father.” But how much can you expect of a civil engineer and a financial analyst?

Also, I realized to my horror that I had neglected to get a decent set of hinges for this door. So check out his craftsmanship going around the bathroom floor and my stupidity of having him install a broken hinge. The upper one is whole, so this is something we can figure out later.


Then it was on to the windows. He asked how I wanted them built. How to finish the edges, how far out beyond the trim to bring them. Totally custom work is not fun for someone who has no idea how to deal with blank slates. So my answer was a trip to the basement. “Build them like these.”


And here’s what I got! Remember how I said the house is crooked? The windows aren’t. It makes for an interesting look.


And he’s pre-cut the trim for the sides of the windows downstairs. I don’t have the materials for the headers but we can pretend. Also, I wanted to make the headers of all the windows and doors toward the back of the house line up. The one window in the kitchen was too low, so the trim steps up. You can see here how that worked out.


I’m thinking that if I put up blinds, no one will ever know that I cheated the trim up to match the others. Much better than ripping the brick out to raise the lintel, eh?

Oh. And remember how my living room became a disaster? This job got it there again. I swept up a half dozen shovels of sawdust today and called it good enough. And one more shot because my mind is blown that this man can build jambs that fit every bit of crooked perfectly and slide right into place. The smoke smell had better not linger though.