Category Archives: other projects

Re-seasoning Vintage Cast Iron

My sister and I were lucky enough to find vintage Wagner Ware cast iron skillets in my grandmother’s basement. The skillets hadn’t been so lucky though. After going unused possibly for decades, they were covered in an impressively nasty crust. Then my sister’s boyfriend got a Griswold Dutch oven from his grandmother’s basement. These are treasures, possibly some of the finest cookware ever made in America. But they needed work, and since my sister lives in a building where she doesn’t want to set the fire alarm off, I offered to do it for her (Project 11). And then they sat all scuzzy in my cabinets for over a year.

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And she was coming in the middle of the month for a wedding! So, ack! I let it go to the very last minute, and then scrambled to get it done the day she arrived. (Also, ack! The month is more than half over!) To start, you have to get all the old seasoning off. The coolest way to do this is in an electrolysis tank. Hook your cast iron up to a battery charger in a tank of water, connect the other terminal to another piece of metal, and the electricity does all the work for you. I’m not cool enough for this though so I used Easy Off. I wrapped them up in plastic bags and let them sit overnight.

And with just a bit of scrubbing they came out nice and clean. Except for the little Number 3 skillet, which didn’t come clean in time for me to do it. Too bad, these little guys are perfect to fry an egg or 2. Now she’ll get that one back for Thanksgiving.

 

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Anyways, the next step is to coat them with a thin layer of fat and then bake them in the oven at 500 degrees for an hour.* See, this is why she had some fear of the fire alarms. I read that very perishable flaxseed oil is the best, but I just used canola oil that I had on hand. Also, I dragged my feet through a week of cool weather and did this hot job when it got warm again. The good news is it didn’t actually stink that much.

*Non-American readers, don’t panic. That’s 260 degrees Celsius.

And then I turned my brain off for a moment and took the Dutch oven out and set it on the counter. Now I have that sought-after old Griswold logo burned into the polyurethane. (I was fortunately able to scrape off the bits of poly that stuck to the pot.)

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If you’ll recall, this oak was a table top that I got from a friend’s basement and the plan was always to sand off the old finish and treat it with cutting board oil. Is this what will finally get me to… do that?

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Throwback Thursday Condo Post 3 – Living Spaces

There’s not much room for surprises in a high-rise condo with concrete ceilings, is there? Not much, but there’s some. Remember how I said the carpeting was beat and grimy? It turns out that the padding under it had also hardened into some strange mealy substance that was stuck to the floors and had to be scraped off and bagged up. And there were vinyl baseboards coming unglued throughout the place. We naturally wanted to replace them with wood, but it turned out to be kind of complicated to attach them into the steel studs. And it didn’t help that the walls were 3/8″ drywall (1/2″ is standard) and the studs were 24″ apart (16″ is standard). It took a lot of trim head screws but we got it done. Mostly my dad. (This is the only before pic we have but you can kinda see what I mean).

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But the biggest challenge with this project was Nana herself. She was always into decorating but this time around she was 87 and couldn’t process all the decisions that go into a project of this size anymore. They would talk about colors, then my mom would pick them and give Nana a few options. She picked the lightest option every time. We tried and failed to get her to go darker in the living room, then she didn’t like the color either. I wanted to paint it again but my mom said no  way. And when it was all done and the grimy woodwork was painted over, it looked fine.

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While we’re in the living room I’ll show you the rest. A friend of the family had a swag and jabot valence that was about 8 inches short for the huge window in the living room. Nana didn’t want it because she thought plaid was too informal but my aunt forced her to take it. We lengthened it by taking the jabots off, splicing wood onto either end, and stapling them back on. That was surprisingly easy. The hard part was hanging it. The ceiling is some kind of insane precast concrete and my dad’s power nailer wouldn’t go through it. I’m talking about a tool made by Remington that shoots 22 caliber charges, not an air compressor. But anyways, we got it up.

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And my mom gave her a bit of that separate dining room she wanted with a different wall color in the alcove. Putting up the chair rail was not fun.

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Then there were the closet doors. Originally the place had floor to ceiling metal bifold doors with louvers that looked like lockers. And they stuck and made horrible noises when you tried to open and close them. My mom has an aversion to flat doors and was gonna get hollow paneled ones. I talked her out of it. The plan had been to add trim to all the doors and make them look like 2-paneled doors. That never happened. And in her bedroom there was a narrow hallway with closet doors on one side and a door to the bathroom on the other. Instead of replacing the closet doors, we left them open and walled off the whole hallway. Unfortunately, I have no photos of this. But here’s a look at the room.

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And the den, because yes, she needed a den separate from her formal living room. Here’s a look at her old one. There’s a small chance I’m looking for an exuse to get this awesome picture in this post.

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Squaring off the room with bookcases was my idea. And I guess ignore the sheet on the couch. She was very dissatisfied with this furniture but still insisted on keeping it protected.

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And we put up a shelf with old things on it like she had before. But a lot fewer old things. Her TV show is a perfect match too!

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And I guess we can play “Count the things Chad took” again.

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.)
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  • 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.

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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.

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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.)

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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)

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

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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.)

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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.

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And one more before/after.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.)

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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!”

 

 

 

Ceci n’est pas un mur

I took 2 extra days off this weekend – the longest vacation I’ve had in ages. And I spent it in New York doing a side gig. My friend Maxim just moved into a new apartment and he wanted to turn his living room into a bedroom he can rent out.

This is the third one of these I did, so let’s start at the beginning. Everybody knows New York is expensive. 2 of my friends moved there and had a compression wall installed in their first apartment. Then they moved and the city was cracking down on unlicensed walls and the new building wouldn’t allow it. So I offered to rig something up to thank them for letting me crash with them over and over again. We started brainstorming how to divide the room with something that’s not a wall.

The answer? Billy bookcases.

I left the back off one of them and discovered that it was just the right size for a 30×78 inch bifold door. And to finish it off we used paneling on the back side. But then they told me that it had to go all the way to the ceiling. And to do that? Studs. Short ones to fill the gap, not all the way to the floor. Because it’s not a wall.

I trusted that I could use their vacuum. Mine didn’t fit in the car. Turns out all they had was a Roomba. And they said it took a month to get all the sawdust up.

Then someone else I didn’t know wanted to hire me to come up and build him one. Here’s the second not-a-wall.

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And that brings us to this year, when Maxim moved and asked me to come up yet again. A few things changed. Now I have a real job so I had to take time off to do this. And my parents’ Volvo station wagon died, so no more slow trips through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel with paneling flapping on the roof and people behind me honking in support. (Volvo was with me for one of the happiest moments of my life, when I got my un-replacement doors.)

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So this time he met me in Newark. After a bit of dysfunction, we rented a cargo van, moved my things into it, went to IKEA and Home Depot, and got everything in by 5. Then went back to Jersey, returned the van, and parked my car in Newark for a shockingly cheap $8 a day.

This time, Maxim wanted a real door. I didn’t trust the previous two non-walls to hold one but this one has 2 right-angle bends flanking the door to brace it. And… this structure that is not-a-wall required a framing plan.

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Framed.

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And trimmed out. You can see that I can’t scribe casing like the Irishman can. Not freehand anyway.

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Then there were some other odd jobs that didn’t go quite as smoothly. Remember folks, IKEA bed frames don’t come with the slats. You have to buy those separately. And then Maxim’s brother, given the task of dismantling and IKEA desk to avoid a $100 fee for the movers to do it, smashed it to smithereens. So on Tuesday when I was bringing my car into Manhattan to get my things, I went shopping again. Now, 8 corner braces grace the underside of that desk. It ain’t right but it’s there.

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Meanwhile, here’s Maxim’s brother loading up my car. He then sat in it while I finished working. With the door open. So I came out and needed a jump. This is relatively quiet Battery Park City. There weren’t a lot of cars and no one was stopping. Then I stood in the street, waving and holding up my jumper cables. People drove around me. I started getting mad and ALMOST pulled out my sawhorses to set up a road block. But finally someone stopped.

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And here’s one last look at all of my masterful rigging.

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The Porch Jacking

I got an invitation to be a guest blogger! Julia at Home on 129 Acres is having other bloggers write about their favorite tools to help her decide what to buy. I gave her a fun throwback story about a project replacing porch columns at my parents’ house using a tool she’s probably never buying. Read on here: The Porch Jacking: Chad’s Crooked House

The Runaway Train and the Armoire

Now, one of the jobs I gave to the Irishman, along with all the trim in my house, was to spruce up the inside of that red armoire (that’s now white). My grandmother picked it up for 10 bucks back in the 60’s. The drawers were missing and the fronts were just nailed on. My grandfather painted it (twice) and fitted it with some rudimentary shelves. But while we were at it working on my house, why not put in good, sturdy, adjustable shelves? Then my mom can put her teacher stuff inside it. And when she retires, it’ll look good enough to go back to holding tchotchkes. Here it is, along with my not yet married parents, 30 years ago.

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I told him that my mom wanted it done by the end of the month. Lots of relatives are coming to visit in August and my mom wants her teacher stuff inside it by then. He took me at my word and had it done in about 3 days. And while he was finishing up, he called me. A lot.

“I tell ya, there was a lotta work in it,” he told me over the phone. The sides were crooked and he had to square them up for the adjustable shelving I asked for. Whoops! I would have just had him install fixed shelves had I known. But it’s done now and done well. The inside is all cabinet grade plywood and the shelves have solid poplar nosings.

And then he decided to build drawers out of scraps. The bottoms are the thin particle board that I bought to protect my living room floors.

I felt pretty good about all of this… until I counted up the time he spent on it. Because one of the next things for me to do was to tell my mom what this job was going to cost her. I decided to put it off. I’d pay him myself and hold off until she could see how good it looked. Maybe that way she wouldn’t be too upset, right?

But it grated at me for the rest of that day, so I didn’t waste too much time. The next time I saw my mom, I cautiously broached the subject. “Hey Mom, I didn’t get you anything for your birthday. I was thinking I might… subsidize the armoire work for you.”

But when I told her his price, she laughed. Called it the world’s worst investment. And told me that there was no way she’d let me take any kind of a hit from pay for any of it.

I pointed out that a dishwasher will last about 10 years. 20 if the manufacturer screwed up. (Yes, I believe that planned obsolescence is a thing.) So on the bright side, if the armoire costs as much as a dishwasher but lasts 5 or 10 times as long, it’s far from the world’s worst investment. Right?

So I borrowed a big car from some friends and drove through the EZ pass lane with no transponder. Then got to have an awkward conversation with them about the ticket that’s gonna get mailed to their house. Then I opened the tailgate and the shelves fell on my foot and, worse, got dented on the asphalt.

And then it gets better. With all this new plywood added to it, the piece got really heavy. And it didn’t fit up the stairs. So my dad partially dismantled it (and damaged the paint) and then did this epic job wrapping up the banister.

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And this even better job with the ceiling light upstairs.

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And at long last, here it is in its new, (temporary?) not-quite-finished, chipped-up state.

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