Tag Archives: home renovation

5 years!

This year has kind of felt like a slog. But when we look back to where the house was a year ago, I think we have cause for optimism.


Can you spot the changes?


I’m excited about having the table set. That means Year 6 is starting out right. But back to last year… I started off Year 5 staining the handrail and prepping and priming the rest of the stairway and paneling. It was a tedious job and I was ready for a break.

wood filler

Instead, I let the Irishman build cabinet doors for my kitchen. (Did you notice how messy it looked without them?) This was bar none the most mismanaged project anyone ever took on at my house. The cost overruns had me in the hole from June to December and for months and all I could do was train myself not to care about the mess that took over my first floor and the public sidewalk in front of my house. This was definitely not legal so I’m just glad no one turned me in.


When the Irishman was done, I’m not sure if there was a single door that was actually in acceptable condition. Some had surface flaws that became evident after they were painted over, some were the wrong size and didn’t close right, and some got scratched before they were installed. For the time being I ignored it all because I couldn’t stand the sight of them.


Once again, no break. I went head on into another project that was far more annoying than I expected: stucco.


Or really, the annoying part was the building paper, lathe, flashing, and casings. On the bright side, this makes the house look a lot more finished and less scary.


At this point, I sincerely wanted to leave the house a pigsty forever and never touch another project again. But I also wanted to get those cabinet doors off the floor (and make them look closer to what my money should have bought). I participated in a 30 projects in 30 days challenge in September. A lot of the things I actually wanted to close out were too big to average a project a day, so I went with it and found smaller projects to do. The odd pieces of not-yet-installed moldings and the piles of unused building materials.

And in October, my dad and I worked a miracle on those  cabinet doors. It took about 2 weeks of hard work, a little too much to average a project a day.


Then after a good long Christmas break, I tackled the Leaning Tower of Pyrex. I’ve added enough extra shelves inside my kitchen cabinets that some of them are only about 5 inches apart. It’s great and I don’t understand why more people don’t do this.


And the work I stared on the linen closet? It should be done by now but instead it’s… on hold.


I thought it would be done by now, and that right about now I’d be taking a good look at each of my linens/life choices as I moved them back into the closet where they belong. What got in the way? A friend who needed to get out of a bad living situation, fast. It was messy but it works out. I was planning on looking for a short-term roommate again anyway.

The Front Door – The Plan and Cold Feet

I’m hoping to start facade restoration next year as soon as there’s no risk of frost. In the meantime, I need to take my front door off and refinish it while the awnings are still up. I will be locking the house with an old fashioned skeleton key in the vestibule door in the meantime. Can you see how bad the varnish stain is right now?


But this gets me to something I’ve been ignoring. I get a lot of compliments on this door, some of them from people I care deeply about. And this style of door is all over the place. But I look at it and think, “meh.” So anyways, if you strongly disagree with me here, please call me crazy since that crazy sounds better than a huge snob.

This is not how I react to old doors. In case you need a reminder, I said that the day I found a matched set of 5 doors that were pretty much period correct was the happiest in my life.


And I spent about 100 hours refinishing them. (These doors are in fact a smidge too fancy with reeded details on the panels, but I can live with that.)


I used trigonometry, the arctangent function, to cut framing lumber for this sloped ceiling in the back bedroom to make the room fit these (definitely not period correct but definitely awesome) closet doors.


I carried these home when I had literally no use for them just because the idea of them going in the trash upset me. They got passed around to 3 different people but have hopefully now found their forever home. Important: the parallelogram panels in between the triangles were originally glass.


And when the renovation got me stressed out, I laid out my door hardware and looked at it just to cheer myself up.


So, old doors get an emotional reaction out of me. And actually so do the hollow core doors I started with.


But a mahogany door in a not quite historically accurate Victorian style? Meh. But I’ve already put money into things that revolve around keeping it, and I still can’t afford to back out of that and dump more money into something else. The Irishman built nice jamb extensions and casings on the inside and when I needed a new lock I went one from Baldwin, the closest approximation I could find of the mortise locks I covet with the modern tubular design.


For perspective, the oldest doors on my block or the next, which has identical houses, appear to be from the 1930’s.


And there are others behind storm doors that look more like this wider door on a wider house. Note the starburst cut into the glass.


Meanwhile, the fanciest houses in the neighborhood seem to hold onto their original doors more often.


Even this weird effort to suburbanize a brownstone makes one side of me almost happy. Yes, I’m a fan of that mid-mod/colonial hybrid door if not the rest of what’s going on here.


So, I’m not counting on ever looking at my door and being in awe of it.


But can we drag its appearance a little closer to the doors I really love?


Because when I take a second look at it, I realize that what I like least about this door is the faux-Victorian glass.


So, like I said, I’m taking the door off to refinish it. And I’m thinking about my options here. What do you think? I’ll post some ideas next time but maybe yours are better than mine. For now, let’s just say that I have mixed feelings about clear glass.

They’re Making My Old Room a Sauna

No that’s definitely not true. My parents are turning my childhood bedroom into my dad’s office. My dad has been working from home for several years now, and usually he helps himself to the kitchen table, which is driving my mom crazy. Especially because he sometimes takes conference calls around 5pm and everyone has to be quiet.

So first they wanted to know when I was taking my crap away. It’s a little embarrassing how badly I kept the space all this time when they’ve been so good to me, but now the room is MOSTLY emptied out, except for books, and a lot of what’s here isn’t mine. We’ll tackle it soon.


The desk is not really comfortable for an adult, so now it’s on Craigslist. The plan is to put an inexpensive new butcher block countertop across this whole wall to make a big built-in desk. I checked out the usual suspects for these: Ikea and Lumber Liquidators, and found that the latter offers one 12 feet long for about $340. Sadly, this room is 12 foot, 7 inches. So I looked into places that would make them to order and… you don’t want to know. Instead, we’re probably just going to use 6-foot sections from IKEA and have seams more or less where they are now. Except the counter will be all the same wood and the seams will be joined together tightly. I’ll varnish it with the poly left over from my floors.

But before we do that the wallpaper has to come down.


And they had an ice dam a couple of years ago and now at least one window needs some prep before it can be repainted.



Underneath, I think we can hack one shallow 5-inch IKEA kitchen drawer for the desk, though it will be 7 inches shorter than the span so there will be 3-inch fillers on either side. Not a huge deal, right? It saves a lot of money over custom cabinetry. We can use nice poplar for the drawer front and the fillers so it blends in with the custom cabinets on either side. One of these, but wider.


Then to finish the room, they plan to paint it the same color as my bedroom in the city. My dad thought thinks I picked a cool color even though I picked a really safe light neutral.


And then my mom wants to get him a comfy desk chair that swivels. But it had better not be too big as they plan to leave the bed where it is.


Then, the shelves for the uppers need some work. My dad built them out of pine and the knots bled through the paint and the shelves sagged so he put corner braces on them and just had me place books to hide them. I think we can seal the knots, work out a better way to prevent the sagging, and add the trim to the fronts of the shelves that we always planned to install. Or we could rebuild them out of poplar or plywood but that seems like too much work.

And while this room is turned into a workshop there’s that critical job of hollow core door eradication. My dad has been hoarding all the solid pine doors he needs in the garage for over 10 years.

What do you think? Any better ideas for this room conversion or are we on the right track?




Baby’s First Christmas


This isn’t what I meant…


No, 2016 was my first time hosting holiday dinner, so I feel very grown up!


And I decided to pretend to be Italian because I live in South Philly (even though my part is more southeast Asian than Italian now). I went all out and served the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. What is this? Catholics believe that you should strengthen your faith through self-deprivation by not having meat on Fridays or the eves of religious holidays, and Italians made a tradition of following the letter of this rule by preparing the most over-the-top decadent seafood dinner humanly possible. I made baccala, salt dried cod with tomato sauce, and lobster bisque. There was a pack of stuffed clams in my freezer after I got them on sale at Aldi 2 months ago, so I finally used them up, and my dad made seafood pasta with a white wine broth, one of his signature dishes, with 4 more kinds of seafood. Some people said that’s cheating but we say close enough. I did follow the rule that Italians really care about and made about twice as much food as we needed.

Then there’s a little Crooked House inside the Crooked House now – my roommate made one out of gingerbread! I said she should have printed tiny little political statements for the rainbow candy in the windows but we’ll call it close enough. She wanted to build it to be broken open like a piñata but she forgot to bake a roof so she just


And because this post is a bit of a catchall, I’ll show you a renovation-related gift I gave my parents this year. Their house was built really nicely in 1951. Alth0ugh it’s kind of nice to have a newish house that was built for TV’s and not for a kitchen maid, theirs was sadly built with flush doors and ordinary looking hardware. Then around 1990 (I think) someone downgraded the doors to the flimsiest hollow paneled doors I’ve ever seen. But at least they don’t have a faux woodgrain embossed into them. My dad has been very slowly replacing them with solid (veneered, finger-jointed pine doors. And by slowly I mean about one door every 5 years on average. Remember, solid pine doors are $60 more than the cardboard ones, so if you have a large house with any upgrades at all and you have these doors… I won’t say what I’m thinking. I’m nice like that. (This is their hallway by the way.)


Back again to door hardware because it’s the most important thing… they still had the flimsy circa 1990 Kwikset knobs even though the house had nice doors for the first time. They can’t have awesome vintage hardware with skeleton keys like I have, so I sought out the best modern hardware I could find. I happen to know that my mom loved the circa 1930’s Georgian brass knobs in my back bedroom.


And so when I was deciding between plain enough to be appropriate for a postwar house and conspicuously fancy, I went with the Waverly handleset from Emtek.


I got them 3 so they can have good hardware in the downstairs hall. That covers what other people see at least. The tragedy of having to buy these new might preclude ever getting them throughout the house but that’s life.

In With Old Windows?

So we’ve been through the brick and the cornice. Finishing off the Phase 2 façade work means replacing the windows. Remember what I have? Total junk. I was glad to learn how bad they were because I didn’t want vinyl windows under any circumstances and I can replace these without feeling guilty. To review:

I bent back the aluminum capping and then left it like this for several years.


I never like aluminum capping, but mine looks like this. (That scalloped marble lintel looks great in this photo though!)


Random scraps of wood nailed into the jambs apparently to bring the openings down to a stock size. (The gorilla glue is no longer extant.)


That window above was so racked I could see sunlight through outside the top sash. Now it’s gobbed up with caulk.


The window jambs had sagged and separated from the windows. And they were structural! So they were unsalvageable.


Living room window casings

I partially removed the counterweight cavities in the process and then the insulation people filled them with spray foam. The remaining wood wasn’t in great shape – you can see chunks of the remaining framing missing.


I really love old windows best, but no houses I looked at still had them. So I decided to afford the best new windows I could find. And Craigslist brought me the very nice cottage style 2-over 2 Marvins in the back bedroom.



The originals would have been 1-over-1 (no muntins) but I think the style I got kinda makes up for the replacements being too perfect with non-wavy glass. I got 3 more (with my Obama energy loan!) to finish off the back and the plan was always to get 4 more for the front.

But then I met Wesley, a historic preservation carpenter specializing in buildings way older than mine. He said that by the time my house was built the windows would have come out of a catalog and are all standard sizes. People in his line of work collect them to cannibalize the wavy glass and install it in even older windows. And so, he says I should easily find period correct sashes that are exactly the right size to fit into my jambs! Unfortunately, I’ll have to take down my cheapie Eucaboard and the blinds on the front of the house to measure for the new/old sashes. (They look better painted. You almost can’t tell how bad they are.)


So, yes, I’m considering pulling out (drafty, poorly installed) double-paned windows and reinstalling old single-paned wood. Do you think I need psychiatric help? It’s true that getting nice new Marvins would be more efficient than un-replacing them with something period correct. But old windows will last longer. Old wood is much more resistant to rot than new. If I slip up with repainting my Marvins I could someday be stuck with buying new sashes. (NO ALUMINUM CLADDING ON THE FRONT!!!) And even if I don’t they may only last a few decades. Old windows can last forever. And besides that, I love everything about the pulleys and chains and counterweights on an old window. They slide better than anything new.

And I’m not blind to energy efficiency concerns. First off, windows are the very lowest return on investment you can get for efficiency. Even worse than solar panels now! So they might make sense if the old windows are really, truly wrecked and beyond restoration or if you have bad replacements. Good weatherstripping and storm windows on an old window will get you 95% of the efficiency gains from a new window. It should also cost a lot less upfront, and more of the cost would go to local labor. (The downside is that restoring them will be my local labor.) So yes, old windows are sensible, even (possibly) for someone who doesn’t have any! Definitely give them a chance before you commit to ripping them out!

The Great Soap Dish Dilemma

I’m taking a break from expensive and time consuming projects, but there are smaller things I should be doing. My roommate has been away for 3 weeks and I promised her that stuff would happen while she was gone. I didn’t follow through. Some of this is dependent on the Irishman, who also promised to help me and didn’t follow through, but the bathroom’s lack of towel bars and other storage items is all on me. The toilet paper sits on the radiator, which doesn’t bother me. Towels hang on the side of this temporary storage cart, which I’m also fine with except that guests never find them.


It’s in the bathtub thatthings get ugly. All I have is a bar of soap, a bottle of shampoo (usually large and inexpensive), and a scrub brush. My roommate has 2 additional bottles. And then I use a clean wash cloth every time I shower and with no place to hang them I let them sit in a nasty pile until laundry day.


My roommate said she’d like to see all of that stuff go away. Her tone was gentle but that didn’t imply that I was welcome to slack off. But I did, mainly because my search left me disappointed. I want fixtures that are as plain and sleek as possible in shiny chrome at the dry end of the tub away from the shower head. And there’s a slim chance that I’d want storage for just a wee bit more in case someone more high maintenance ever lives here.

Chris suggested a magnetic soap dish like he used in his house, and this idea sounded fantastic. But there’s a problem. There’s a very limited selection of these, and the most sensible ones have a very traditional look that’s wrong for my bathroom. Everything else is either very high end and imported from Europe or looks as cheap as it is. But I could get one from Zack Scala with a look I liked – for about 50 bucks.

Scala Magnetic Soap Holder

That’s not super cheap but I figured it would be okay and I should get it. But then I was thinking of the other stuff I want that would be on the same wall. It’s one thing to cheat and use cheaper fixtures across the room, but here wouldn’t it look stupid? But getting them to match would cost like $300! And even after spending all that money will it look any good?

And I went back to the alternative, finding a different manufacturer whose product is close enough. But they’re all chrome when this soap dish is polished stainless steel. Polished stainless steel that looks like chrome is apparently not a thing in the US.

I thought when I was planning this project out that marble shelves would stick out like a sore thumb and thought I should get glass. But then I wondered about safety if I broke it. So I considered getting wire shelves. No need for a soap dish that way. But I couldn’t find anything I liked and decided that the risk of breaking a glass shelf (that I like) is pretty small anyway, right? But that takes me back to where I have to order expensive things online and decide if I’m going to hold my nose and spend hundreds of dollars or try to mix different styles of fixtures that I’m buying sight unseen.

So then I decided to ignore the house and wash up to do something fun. And I threw another washcloth on the pile.

The Dreaded Post-Construction Clutter

Amid all the odds and ends and this goal to not work too hard on the house, I’ve been chipping away at the dreaded clutter. And there were some pleasant surprises. First, I had some old kitchen cabinets in the basement but decided they won’t be reusable after all. I was ready to drive them out to my parents’ place in the Land of Good Public Services. But luckily for me, the Irishman was cleaning out his basement, too. And he rented a very large dump truck and loaded it up. And now my stuff is gone, baby, gone! This also marks the first time, I believe, that there is absolutely no scrap wood or scaffolding anywhere in the back yard. I still do have a big pile of Belgian blocks in the alley but they can stay.

Then there were lots of boxes to go through. But it turns out most of those were half empty. And half of what was in them was construction detritus. I found broken trim pieces from the old recessed lights, small strips of bathroom floor tile that were cut off, and of course lots of dirt. I also finally found the roller ball catch for the linen closet door! I was not willing to buy this again since I knew it was down there, so now I’m finally free to make all the interior doors operable


(If you forgot, I put a dummy knob on this door because it’s too thin for a mortise lock. At one time it had a latch more like a cabinet door.)

And this is now all that’s left in my big dumping ground under the kitchen. Trust me, it’s progress.



And the same thing happened in my bedroom and the bookshelves in the living room. I’ve passed Peak Box and shedding cardboard fast.


But there is a downside to all this. The bookshelves are much tidier, yes. But what’s left on them is morphing into the physical manifestation of a to-do list. There are hinges for the doors that aren’t hung, missing pieces to the kitchen drawers, rolls of non-slip shelf paper, laminate adhesive… but I’m loving being able to put these jobs off.


Of all the random junk sitting out, I started with instant gratification. I owe Mary Elizabeth a big thank you for mailing me curtains for the only room that’s ready for them, the one that I don’t use.


And I’ve finally hung up the bathroom mirror. This was probably the most pathetic thing to hold off on, but apparently I found it less aggravating to sit on the floor to shave than to put 2 screws in the wall. It’s kinda junky thermofoil over particle board and didn’t hold up very well to being stored in the basement through demolition but I’m thinking of painting it a fun color to spruce it up until the Phase 2 bathroom work happens. Whadaya think? Maybe not worth the trouble since it’s going in 2 years.


And I hung up “Ne buvez jamais d’eau,” which was easily the best piece of artwork in my grandmother’s house. I thought it was too small for this wall but it’s actually fine. You can kinda see the scale in the photo above.


This concludes Phase 1

And I didn’t even notice!

Which is funny because I’ve been fixated on the end for a solid 3 years now. And it was 3 years of scope bloat. At first it was the things I needed to make the place safe, like this chimney. (This is behind my bookcases in April 2014)


To the “while we’re at it” jobs that couldn’t feasibly happen later, like moving the bathroom.

second floor existing and proposed

To the surprise problems I couldn’t fix later, like the water behind this stucco. It was at least not getting behind the asphalt.


The messy things I wanted over with, like the patio door.


And the things that seemed unnecessary until I was living without them, like kitchen storage. (The oak chopping block on top of this cabinet has been deferred beyond Phase 1.)


Even with the washer and dryer it didn’t really feel finished. So how do I know it’s over? Because I went away for the weekend and my social calendar filled up every evening but one this week. Normally, there’d be something I wanted to do to the house and knowing that I was even slower would make me grumpy.

As far as actual work goes, it’s been only little things. My bedroom door has been down for a while. I was going to paint the jamb and install vintage hardware and all that. You know door hardware is my favorite. But after that got held up I just hung it back up again as it was and felt great about it. The only real house progress was the furniture and pretty things on this wall. Well, that and polishing silver.


That dresser was in my grandmother’s childhood home and the mirror was in her living room. The mirror always looked really, really formal in her house and I thought it would be too much for me, but I love it. And I got the bust because I used to be afraid of one just like it at my friend’s house when I was little. The Irishman’s kids haven’t seen it yet.

And otherwise, I’m working on putting life before the house. On Tuesday I threw together a small dinner – this kind of thing is why I have a house at all instead of a studio apartment.

And I’m starting to get used to regular cleaning. Not shoveling up debris, the normal people kind. And I went to a neighborhood tree planting today after 3 years of no volunteer work.

So while I’m not doing house work, I have some other stuff that I’m looking forward to writing about. I think it’s time to put together a proper little tour of my little house. Then there’s the house hunt, stuff about the neighborhood and city, past and current projects for my family (because you know I owe my parents forever and ever), and other fun stuff.  There are little projects to do during the “break” and loads of clutter – moving my grandmother and dealing with her stuff is unfinished business. There’s so much more of it after my sister and I got what we wanted. And it’s never too early to plan out Phase 2. I’ve had ideas in my head and can’t wait to write them down. Stay tuned!

A triumphant end to Phase 1

I always imagined that the stove would be just about the last thing I’d do in Phase 1. The house wouldn’t be perfect but it would be livable and I’d make pasta and it would be triumphant. Well, I’ve been making pasta and a triumph it is not. Even easy meals are kind of tedious in a chronically messy kitchen. And elsewhere in the house, the march toward civility is moving backwards.


Now the plan was always to slow down a bit and get my life back for a little while after Phase 1. So when would that come? It was looking like at some point or another I’d just anticlimactically say that’s enough.

But now there’s big news – I have a triumphant end to Phase 1 once again. Because a good friend of mine wants to be my roommate! That means great things for my bank account. And it also means more stuff to do now. She’s pretty easy going, but she said in no uncertain terms that the doors need to be back up on her room and the bathroom before she can move in. And there’s at least one solid weekend’s worth of work left to turn the living room and kitchen right side up again. I’m hoping for a little more help from the Irishman; without him, it could easily be 2 weekends.


And the new end of Phase 1 (I think) is the washer and dryer. But first, there’s all this painting that feels like it will never end. But there are bright spots. I’m done most of the prep now and at the very least, the messiest painting should be done this weekend. I hope. And the back bedroom closet doors look oddly new with the mildew bleached off and painted over. Of course new wasn’t what I wanted, but I’m happy enough to have it here.


And there’s quarter round in the living room! That’s not just a big step forward (and a prerequisite for the bookcases) but also one more thing out of the basement. 5000 to go before the washer and dryer come! Just kidding. But not really.


So, it looks like I need to put a third coat of paint onto most of the walls. Hopefully that’s done this weekend and I can really put the house together next. Then here’s what’s left:

  • Finish Phase 1 trim painting, which means all upstairs woodwork. Re-hang upstairs doors.
  • Clear out the back bedroom. There is stuff in the furniture. I’ll have to put it in boxes.
  • Procure and install curtains or blinds for the back bedroom.
  • Move the bookcases I have back to the long wall where they were and anchor them. Add a 4th narrow unit and height extensions. (Bringing over books and other things that go on them can go beyond Phase 1.)
  • Hang the 2 downstairs interior doors and slider screen door that are currently stored in the living room.
  • Bring over one more piece of furniture for the brick wall by the stairs.
  • Add 6 more drawers (for a total of 7) to the kitchen. Make plywood drawer fronts. Paint them? Rearrange kitchen things and bring in china.

The list is getting shorter and less scary, right?


3 years!

Actually it’s tomorrow, and the plan was to have a blowout party yesterday. Instead I’m sitting on a wooden chair looking at how torn apart the living room is and thinking I’d rather take a gun to my head than tackle any more painting just now. And so instead I’m blogging. Everything is a little half done because surprise surprise, it’s twice as much work as I thought again. Even with my parents and their friend (which is amazingly nice) helping. And when it comes to that punchlist, there’s more painting making its way into Phase 1. Partly because many of the most important things to paint are in the way of each other.

So here’s how it went. At year 0 the house looked great even though there were unseen things that could have killed you.



But then some issues, like this extreme crookedness, were pretty visible right away.


Back bedroom

A year later, the scope bloat was complete and instead of living in a slightly buffed up old house and tackling issues slowly, I had a shell and was looking forward to owning windows… and returning to compliance with a law requiring them. Luckily I didn’t get busted for having a chopped up door here for 3 months. Also, I just got rid of the last of this green textured plywood.


And we have to remember this mess just because. There was drywall nailed onto these half wrecked walls and the Irishman told me I had to add framing for the cabinets. I didn’t do it anywhere else and it was torture!


Year 2 ended with very, very exciting white drywall primer.


And a not-so-functional bathroom. The bucket was to flush the toilet until I finished painting the room and got the tank back on.


And in year 3? So many firsts. Paint colors!


The doors! My first love. (Keep this in mind, suitors. You’re my second at best.)


Lights that turn on (without risking burning the house down)! And none of them are in boob form!


Floors! Holy crap, they were holding up everything!


Furniture! And my mom cleaning like a (heteronormative) badass.


Of course owning furniture isn’t enough in these narrow working class rowhouses. You also have to get it inside.


And most recently, all the kitchen appliances work! I just picked up spaghetti and tomato sauce at my corner bodega and it was joyous.


So… let’s pretend it still looks like this.


Actually it looks like this. But when the living room looked like that the kitchen didn’t work and was jammed with stuff. And this actually looks pretty under control.


So a real, functional, homey house? I’m SO CLOSE. I said a small house was more than enough, but I didn’t know how hard it would be to get away from all this construction stuff in 800 square feet.

And here’s one more thing to mark off the to do list. I’m deleting the remaining banister work from Phase 1, so this is what I’m calling complete enough.


And let’s talk about the silly things that are annoying me. Like looking at mugs, toothpicks, and candles where the china belongs.


But compared to July 2013, I’m SO CLOSE. I said that before. But it’s true.