A Night In…the New Den!

This post is in partnership with Article!

Oh hello. Funny seeing you here at this time of night. Looks like you had a hard day? It’s almost the freakin’ weekend, so let’s get started early and chill: opium den style.

Here’s a Manhattan. I’m on my second.

If you’ve been following along recently, you know I’ve been working (here, here, here, and here) on this small-ish weird-ish room on the second floor of my house to make a cozy little den, the primary purpose of which is to watch TV and relax forever. I wanted it to be super cozy, full of things I love, and simple enough for the small size of the space but still layered and intimate—a nice little hideaway for myself and some friends if and when I procure some. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been at the futzing stage with this room, which is when I put on some back-season of my recently reignited old love, Survivor (if you don’t look up who won, you can pretend it didn’t happen 10 years ago!), and put up art and swap around chairs and lamps and take frequent breaks to collapse on the sofa because I CAN. I love how it’s come together! This room needed a lot of the same work as the recently-completed-ish bedroom, but for some reason this one felt so much easier, both to renovate and get some decor happening that I actually like. Let’s pretend it’s because I’m getting better at this, and not that I’m just HIGHLY motivated by using my TV again?

We’ll go with that.

The other night, bae came over and we broke in the opium den officially. Here’s how I like to do it:

Step 1. Order Chinese food.

Step 2. Kick back.

Step 3. Take a drink. Take a hit. Take whatever floats your boat. Not the hard stuff.

Step 4. Do that thing where you scroll through iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, and HBOGO indefinitely until you land back at the thing you wanted to watch in the first place. We bought Get Out on iTunes which, sadly, I missed in theaters because I never leave the house. It always feels like a big commitment to actually purchase a movie on iTunes, and then I remember it’s less than the cost of two movie tickets. I don’t know what that’s about. Anyway.

Step 5. Receive Chinese food delivery, pig out.

So one excellent addition to my life has been that bae brings with him an impressive dowry of not one but two dogs. So essentially I have four dogs now. It’s so many dogs. I love dogs.

This is Gertie, alternately known as Officer Gert. She keeps the crew in line. She’s squat on her legs and big in her behind and does not like anyone acting up or seeming like they might be thinking about acting up. Gertie spends all day taking care of Linus: cleaning his face and ears and sometimes a part of his back she seems particularly fond of, and steps in when the other dogs get rowdy too close to him.

Linus. Linus! He needs a grooming. I love and cherish when he’s more of a muppet, but this is about as long as his hair can get without curls starting to mat.

That is, by the way, the best dog in the world. I don’t play favorites but yes I do and Linus is my favorite. It’s been five whole years since that guy stumbled into my life, which makes him around 15 years old now. I think that means Linus needs a whole separate post because otherwise I’ll get carried away, but man. My little man. Still trucking.

This is Fox’s ear, because his face is buried in my sweatpants’d crotch. It’s pretty much where he lives unless he’s running around causing terror. Fox is not an actual fox but rather an oversized Papillion who looks a lot like a fox. Also, bae shares my everlasting love of The X-Files, so. Fox.

Fox and Mekko are inseparable. Poor Mekko used to just have Gertie and Linus who are no fun as playmates, and now she has Fox who is a little too much fun. He’s such an annoying younger brother. I love him.

Bae is in the background there. He likes a striped hoodie and long walks on the beach. Calm down.

We’ll talk way more about the room when I can show you in daylight, because night photos are tricky and I feel like we need the light of day to really appreciate things like that bright orange naked lady in her guilded frame. Anyway, this corner of the sofa I think is the most comfortable place in the house. The seat portion of the sofa is pretty much the size of a twin bed, which is honestly kind of too amazing, in that I want to live on it. That discontinued IKEA lamp dims and gives off great light—I’m glad I found a spot where I like it! I love that lamp but it’s never landed anywhere that it felt right before.

Gertie’s favorite spot in the house is sprawled on this sheepskin across the back of the sofa, which comes from the fairly new-to-me company, Article! Especially if your style leans more modern, do yourself a favor and scroll through their products—so much good stuff (big and small!) and really well-priced. This sheepskin is perfect here because it’s almost exactly as long as the back of the sofa, wide enough that it can be draped over the back but stays in place, and covers an otherwise noticeable dip in the back where Susan and Will’s dogs used to love to nap! It’s also super soft and cozy and adds a nice shot of texture, and it’s ethically sourced from New Zealand or Australia and non-toxic, so it should last for decades. The sofa itself is a well broken-in black leather, and I really dig the combo of dark browns and off blacks in here. I know it’s a faux pas maybe and I don’t care!

Also I have been carting around that pillowcase since HIGH SCHOOL because I loved it and held out hope that someday it would look good somewhere. It brings me joy so leave me alone about it. It’s originally from IKEA.

I’m not really a fan of most scented things, but I love (LOOOVVVVE) some Palo Santo wood to burn as incense. I scaled back my candle game for the purposes of not looking crazy in pictures on the internet, but it can get reallllll witchy up in here. Sticks burning, candles everywhere, lamps dimmed down or off…yes. I aim to be as witchy as possible during relaxation time.

By the way, back behind my weird piece of thrift store pottery in the foreground, there’s a little notepad and a pen, which I’ve realized I have some version of around me at all times. I make notes constantly of ideas or little sketches or lists, because otherwise it’s all just in my head and it makes me crazy? So I write a lot of stuff down. I’m really opening up here, I don’t know.

Also, that chair back there is my womb chair, which I was lucky enough to inherit when my parents downsized! I thought it would be too big in here, but it ended up feeling just right. It’s been in a few different places in the house, but so far I like it in here best. This seems to be a theme with this room! I’m not really sure why. Do dark rooms kind of decorate themselves?

Lighting that corner behind the chair was a challenge (you know, the kind with zero stakes)—even though I have tons of lamps, not a single one of them felt right! It always felt too bright and too directed either down at the chair or up at the ceiling, and I just wanted something very slim and simple with a soft light. The Rise floor lamp—also from Article—ended up being pretty perfect! It comes in white too, but I love how the matte black finish of the shade disappears with the wall color to keep the corner from feeling too crowded. Having never bought anything Article before I wasn’t sure what to expect from the quality, but it really is excellent! The shade swivels around to any direction you want, and the height adjusts, and the whole thing is very sturdy on a heavy substantial base. It turns off with a push-button on cord at floor height, which is great since it’s a slightly awkward squeeze to lean in and turn something on at the top. I’m into it illuminating a painting—just enough light bounces off the painting and the wall for the corner to feel super inviting and not like a black hole. For now I’m enjoying this strange painting I found in the trash. I don’t know what’s going on with this guy but I figure I’ll stare at it for a while and try to figure it out. I move art around like a crazy person.

Oh yeah, that cabinet. Whipped it up one fine Sunday a couple weeks ago. It was really fun. And I finally used some of my lath!! It sorta made me want to abandon most of my other goals to play with lath all day instead. We’ll discuss more soon.

The movie, by the way? SO GOOD. I’m glad I bought it so I can watch it again. Which I already did.

Thank you for stopping by! And thank you to Julia and Kim for bringing me in on the A Night In series fun! It wouldn’t really occur to me to take artificially lit photos at midnight, because I am blogger and we shoot always by the light of the sun,  but this room was pretty much designed for Netflix & Chill so now you know what that looks like! We’ll do a day-lit reveal soon!

Want to see more bloggers betraying their secret training and showing their spaces at night? Hop on over to…

Chris Loves Julia ++ Yellow Brick Home ++ The Gold Hive ++ I Heart Organizing ++ The DIY Playbook ++ The Fox & She ++ Room for Tuesday ++ In Honor of Design

Den-ovation: Moldings and Paint!

There are several different molding treatments in my house, and—like many old houses—they follow a formal hierarchy between rooms. Basically the fancy rooms have the most ornate moldings, and the less fancy places have more modest ones. When renovating, I try to be very careful about this stuff, because even if everything is new and looks great it should still be appropriate to each individual space!

For instance! This is a decent view of the moldings in that funny upstairs room I turned into a little home office, where you might be able to tell that the baseboards are a very simple profile and the window is cased out with a stool and an apron rather than the panel molding, like you find below the windows in my bedroom. The piece that makes up the foundation of the window molding is actually slightly different and narrower, too. The baseboard is similar to what’s in the den, except the den has a more decorative cap piece on top. Essentially, the moldings in the den are more formal than this little room, but less formal than my bedroom.

Which, for me, begged the question (for months): what do I do with this new window?? A stool (just FYI, because I only learned this recently: a sill is on the exterior, and a stool is on the interior. Both are often called “sills” but now you know better and can be annoying, too!) would be easier to execute, and might look more natural in terms of matching what’s in the adjacent room? But maybe this room would have had a panel, like the bedroom, because it is a more formal space than the little office?

DECISIONS.

I went with panel. I think I made the right call. Someone once told me that when making decisions like this in an old house, don’t be afraid of going too formal. I try to renovate more or less like a purist and decorate like a lunatic, so formal it is!

Naturally, this had to start with cutting out the brand new drywall work right below the window—oh well! It’s just a couple of feet and with the help of my oscillating saw, I didn’t damage any of the surrounding new drywall work while removing what was in the way.

I always have a hard time stopping to remember to take progress shots, but here’s the basic framework of it all! I’m not going to lie, it’s kind of complicated. The back part of the panel below the window sits recessed from even the framing, so I also had to use my oscillating saw to cut that framing down a bit. It would have been better to have done this before installing the framing in the first place, but at the time I thought this window would be getting a sill and it wouldn’t matter!

As usual, this is all salvaged wood! I like using salvage for a couple reasons:

  1. Captain Planet would be proud.
  2. I have so much of it.
  3. I think the most effective way to make something look old (even—perhaps especially!—a surface that’s getting painted) is to use old wood! This wood has little dents and dings and holes from old nails that are just marks of age from its previous life serving as something else, and I don’t worry much about trying to fill in every little thing. Trying to age new material by throwing chains at it and hammering screws into it and stuff is a tricky thing to pull off without it looking overly intentional, but this feels just right.

Even though the individual pieces are fairly simple, there are a lot of pieces! And trying to match new to old takes some serious head-scratching. I have a router and some bits, though, so milling my own simple profiles isn’t such a big deal. Here I had to use the router to create the cove effect on the flat boards, and then I used a large 1/2″ bead bit (I have this set!) to create the rounded profile that kind of fakes a window stop. Then I run it through the table saw to get a 1/2″ thickness, and then it gets tacked to the existing stop that’s part of the window jamb on these new windows. It’s tricky!

The only piece that I can’t really replicate myself (YET!) is the simple-ish but fancy molding that creates the transition between the flat boards and the deep ones that sit perpendicular to them. This is what’s left of my entire supply! Especially when I have precious few pieces to work with, I like to lay them all out on a flat surface in size order, so I always choose the shortest available piece for the run I need. This of course minimizes waste, but also allows me to maintain as much old stock as I can.

There’s a stock molding profile at Lowe’s that’s very similar to this, and I can’t decide whether that’s good enough for the kitchen or if I should get this profile replicated. I mean, I know the answer, but…money.

But there it is, installed! Again, I want it to look original so no need to strip all the paint. I do a little scraping and sanding and then up they go to get caulked, primed, and repainted.

See that dark piece of wood on the innermost part of the casing? That’s an actual window stop, which has been used for the past 150 years as a shim for the lath on the ceiling of my kitchen! Now for the first time, it’s serving the purpose it was milled for. Fun, right? Maybe only for me. I need more stimuli clearly.

Because this room was short on electrical, I added a few baseboard outlets to the new baseboards and the existing ones. Rather than removing the whole baseboard, it’s pretty simple to trace the electrical box and cut it out with an oscillating saw. Then just drive a drywall screw into the center and use a hammer to pry out the cut-out! Then you can insert your box and pull the wires through. For the new baseboards, it’s easier to mark my location, make my cutout with a jigsaw, and then install the baseboard like that—being careful to pull my wires through the hole before attaching the baseboards to the wall.

For the new sections of baseboard, I was really excited to find this piece of salvaged baseboard behind the wall in the upstairs kitchen (boy, we’re overdue for an update on that!), untouched probably for about a hundred years! It’s kind of dirty in this picture, but I believe that’s the original paint color for a lot of moldings in the house, which is kind of a muddy yellow-greige. I kept a small off-cut and I want to try to get it color-matched, because I think MAYBE that’s my new kitchen cabinet color?? We shall see.

The gap between the flooring and the baseboard will get covered with base shoe molding. It would look a lot nicer to do it now, but I’d rather just live with some gaps and wait for the floors to get refinished, and then do all the base shoe at once.

Not so bad, right? I mean it took me two days but now that I’m writing this post, it doesn’t seem so bad. Haha! I think there are 28 different pieces of wood on this window casing, not including a few shims hiding behind the finished pieces here and there.

Even before painting the new moldings, I was starting to feel like the room was so much lighter and brighter than I had expected, and maybe I wanted it to stay that way? I do love a bright sunlit room! I don’t fear dark paint but I also know it’s not right for every space, and maybe I was trying to force it?

I painted a sample. The sample got me excited. Full disclosure: I chose this color solely because I had two leftover gallons from another project, and I liked it in that room, and it was free, and I like free, so there ya go. It’s a Benjamin Moore color called Flint, which was color-matched with Valspar Reserve paint. It’s a really deep inky blue-black-charcoal—very rich but doesn’t really read as black in the space, especially next to black-black.

Then one thing led to another! Ohhhhh shit!

No lie, it was not exactly love at first sight. Painting something a dramatic color is always exciting, but I still wasn’t sold.

I went downstairs to grab something and walking back up the stairs, I was sold! This door is almost always open, and that peek of a really dark room at the top of the stairs is just so nice! Make me wanna go cuddle up to a dog or two. The unevenness is just the paint still drying, don’t worry.

Ahhhhh, yeah. I’m about it! The dark walls DO swallow up a ton of natural light, but in a good way. It feels so cozy! I wanted cozy! This also means this room needs a fair amount of supplementary lighting, which as a serial hoarder of lamps I find appealing.

Circling back to the moldings, all that pink filler is my BFF, Bondo! I’ve never had an issue with Bondo separating or cracking when used on an interior surface, but I wouldn’t recommend it for exterior. Bondo can’t make up for really lousy workmanship, but it can compensate for a lot. It also does a nice job of filling in grain, which makes the wood look like it has more paint on it than it does, which keeps all the moldings looking uniformly imperfect, if that makes sense.

Before moldings ever get a lick of paint, they go through a little rehab. The first step is cleaning: I like to use TSP substitute, following the dilution instructions on the package. These moldings were especially dirty from all the demo work that this room endured.

Then I use my palm sander to knock down any lumps and bumps, then a filler and/or caulk where needed. After the filler is sanded down, everything gets wiped down again and THEN it’s paint time. I tend to favor a 2″ angle brush for cutting in on the walls and painting moldings.

Yes! In this picture, the new casing and baseboards just have primer on them, and the rest of the moldings still need paint, but you can get a sense of how the room is going to look! I’m really happy with it. I also put up a ceiling medallion (the same one I used in my bedroom) and the light fixture, although the shades aren’t up so don’t judge yet! The pink glass shades really make the fixture.

It’s going to be way cute. I know because the room is basically done now! It came together so fast, at least given how long it usually takes me! These photos are a few weeks old so the room has furniture, art on the walls, a working television set, and now it’s my new favorite room in the house! I have to photograph it and then I’ll show you the whole thing soon! Eek!

How to Skim Coat Walls with the Best of Them.

Here’s how to skim coat walls with the best of them: hire the best of them? OMG YOU GUYS I FIGURED IT OUT! Are you inspired yet?

I’m the worst.

But here’s the deal: renovating a house involved a LOT of different technical skills, and you don’t have to walk into it with any of them, really. I didn’t! And while I think it’s good to dip your toe into all sorts of things to learn how they work and whether you actually like them, after you’ve done that I think it’s OK to be honest about what you find enjoyable/gratifying and cut yourself some slack on what you don’t. For me, I’ve found that I really enjoy some woodworking/carpentry times, basic electrical, tedious crazy tasks that wouldn’t really make financial sense to hire out (removing and planing down all the original clapboard on my house, for instance!), and plenty of other things like painting and restoring windows that’s neither fun nor un-fun but manageable and fine and kind of satisfying. And then there are other things that I have very little interest in, like plumbing and, you guessed it, skim coating. I love a restored plaster wall. I don’t want to restore all my plaster walls single-handedly. I like parts of it (stripping down the plaster, installing plaster washers), but the actual skim-coating part I’m thrilled to hand over to a pro when I can. I can do it. I don’t want to do it. So for the den-ovation (thanks to Jaime for that delightful word combo that I will shamelessly co-opt), I hired my main man Edwin to take on the bulk of it. Lucky for you this freed up my hands to take some process pics which we will now review. Let’s learn from the best in the hopes that we might someday be the best? Or just be OK with not being the best. Up to you.

THIS GUY. I love him with all my heart. He’s straight, just to clear anything up there. Edwin is my next door neighbor who I hired three years ago to install/mud/tape drywall on my first floor ceilings, and we’ve done a ton of stuff together since. It’s the most significant bromantic relationship of my life. I learn a lot from him and, believe it or not, he learns a lot from me. Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but when Edwin and I work together it kind of is. Except that time I dropped a level on his head. Sorry Papi!

Also, what a stud. He likes to inform me multiple times a day that “in my country, they call me El Pollo.” Of course they do.

SO. Let’s talk skim-coating. I should preface all of this by saying that we’re talking specifically about skim-coating with joint compound, which is a bit more DIY-friendly for someone who’s not used to doing it, but IDEALLY we’d be talking about a plaster veneer. Plaster veneer falls into two camps from what I understand: hydrated lime and gypsum-based. Gypsum based plaster veneers are generally available at big boxes and the like, and are generally what people are talking about when they talk about plaster veneer in the United States. It sets VERY fast, dries VERY hard, and is super beautiful (especially when tinted and left unpainted!), but traditional plasterers typically apprentice literally for YEARS before they’re allowed to start “putting up” plaster on their own. It takes a lot of skill just to get the plaster from hawk to trowel to wall, and a lot of built-up muscle memory to get the application just right.

Hydrated lime plasters are WAY cool, and what I’d like to try next. It’s one of the oldest building materials known to man and remains one of the healthiest to live and work with. It has the ability to handle big swings in humidity and temperature, which is good in old houses that undergo these swings due to a lack of central air and modern ventilation and stuff. Lime plaster is essentially extremely finely ground limestone that’s fired at a temperature of about 1500 degrees to remove any impurities, and then some other stuff is done to it that I don’t pretend to understand, and then it arrives to you pre-mixed in a 5-gallon bucket. Whereas gypsum-based products have a shelf life because the wet varieties dry out and the powdered varieties take on moisture from the air and harden, hydrated lime is actually aged after packaging to achieve superior results. Once the hydrated lime is applied to interior surfaces, it takes CO2 from the air to “cure”—essentially completing the lime cycle and returning to a stone-like state on your walls! How cool is that? Application technique dictates whether your walls are kinda rough and uneven or perfectly smooth and shiny, which is just personal preference. Instead of sanding like with joint compound, you keep working the plaster as it’s curing to smooth out it out to your heart’s content. Cure/working time is similar to the dry time with all purpose joint compound, meaning it’s typically a three-coat process spread out over three separate days, and like gypsum plaster veneer it can be left painted or unpainted depending on taste. Also it dries to a PH of 12, making it naturally mold and mildew proof. This is why you can wet the shit out of an old plaster wall to remove wallpaper and stuff, and the wall is totally fine.

So those are some things I know—huge thank you to the folks at Master of Plaster for teaching me. They sell gorgeous restoration plasters which can be colored to your preference, and I’m so excited to try it out someday soon.

We didn’t do that though. I have zero doubt that Edwin has the skills to pick up plastering quickly from all his years of joint compound work, so we’re gonna learn it together. Then he can start charging an arm and a leg to do real plaster restoration work, so it’s a win-win! As long as he doesn’t try to hit me with those new rates, haha.

SO. I digress. We are talking about joint compound, the inferior but totally fine/normal way to do this.

Once the plaster is stripped down, plaster buttons installed, and cracks scraped out, the next step is applying fiberglass mesh to the cracks. You CAN do the window screening we discussed in the last post over the entire wall (particularly if there’s significant cracking), but mostly the walls in this room were in good shape so we used standard mesh tape just where it was needed.

I do NOT like paper tape. I feel like it doesn’t hold up, particularly on plaster. I don’t trust it.

We always end up using some combo of joint compounds for skim-coating, which is something you mainly just need to get a feel for. The All Purpose pre-mixed joint compound 5-gal bucket is fine, but the dry time is quite long (sometimes more than 24 hours, depending on temperature and humidity levels), and I don’t think it dries to the same hardness as some of the powdered alternatives. When I’m doing it myself, I tend to go for Easy Sand with a 90 minute set time, which for me is enough working time (now, not when I first tried this!), dries harder, and—as the name implies—does sand easily. Because Edwin has better technique than I do, for this we primarily used Durabondalso a joint compound but dries really hard, making it probably a poor choice if you rely on a lot of sanding like I do when doing this myself.

It takes some practice to get a sense of the right powder-to-water ratio, but you can always add a little more water after mixing. We tend to mix maybe a third of the bag at once. You’re going for a thick peanut butter type texture.

There aren’t really right and wrong ways to get it up onto the wall. I’m now OK with a hawk and trowel, but I started with a mudding pan that felt more manageable. You’ll notice that Edwin has a rounded trowel in his right hand (typically used more for plaster than joint compound) and a straight 8 or 10 inch taping knife in the other. He was excited to try the rounded trowel but he’s used to the taping knives. The benefit of the trowel is that the rounded edges make it easier to not leave lines, but personally I find the trowel difficult to get the hang of. Also of note—those dark patches are fiberglass window screening that we used over the upper section of wall where the plaster was more iffy.

Essentially you want to load up your trowel or knife, start at the top and smooth it all down (or bottom up, or side to side—whatever the hell makes you happy)—you’re looking for about 1/8″ in coverage or a bit less. Thin! But also thick enough! The key is to apply the right amount of sturdy, even pressure to the knife or trowel to get a smooth, solid skim rather than one with bubbles and other weirdness.

I find this difficult. The Magic Trowel makes this less difficult, but you don’t want to really rely on it—you still have to get a FAIRLY smooth and even coverage with the knife/trowel, because the Magic Trowel is really good for smoothing and filling in tracks left by the knife or air bubbles, that kind of thing, but not for actually getting joint compound up onto the wall.

Obviously, the wall on the left has a coat of compound on it, wall on the right does not. There are knives for finishing both inside and outside wall corners, but Edwin prefers to run a straight taping knife along one side of the corner, wait for that side to dry, and then proceed with the adjoining wall and its side of the corner. Trying to do both at once with this method will lead to some very messy corners.

See how there’s some yellow peeking through the grey joint compound to the left of the door? That’s kinda what you’re going for with a first coat in terms of thickness. I won’t pretend it’s easy.

After the first coat is up and fully dried, go around with your taping knife or spackle knife and knock off any high spots or weird globs. You don’t need to sand at this stage but you do need to get your surface even for the next coat.

Ugh, melt my heart!! Look at him go. This is the second coat going up. The second coat is when things really start feeling covered, much like with paint.

We all know by now that I am kind of a crazy person (if you’re new here, consider this your warning), so even though it’s totally abnormal, I think skim-coating drywall is something worth considering if you’re in an old house and trying to match up plaster surfaces to drywall ones. It’s NOT about adding weird texture or giving the walls some faux-rustic treatment, just about NOT getting those perrrrrrfectllyyyy flat walls that drywall is really designed for. I think this will also lessen the likelihood of the drywall cracking along the seams or screw heads popping over time, which I see with most drywall jobs after a few years. If you can tell where the joints are, it’s not going to look like a plaster wall.

Will anyone EVER notice this? No. It’s a normal wall that looks like a normal wall. That’s the point. But I will know it was treated the same way as its plaster counterparts in the same room, and I will appreciate it.

Same for the ceiling. You’ll notice for both that we mudded and taped as usual for the first coat, and then proceeded to a full skim for the second. It made my heart go all pitter-patter. Skim-coating a ceiling is my personal version of hell, but Edwin was undaunted. Told ya. He’s good at these things so they don’t seem like a big deal at all. Just another surface.

Look at that! The man’s an artist! I do NOT achieve these results pre-sanding. Or even post-sanding. That is why it’s worth it to me to hire out. It’s faster and easier but it’s also BETTER long-term than what I can do. My work is sufficient. His work is excellent. It’s not like this is the kind of thing you ever want to redo.

I’ve increased the contrast on this picture a bunch so you can see that up close, it’s not perfect. Not yet! This is after the second coat, and there are some track lines from the trowels and knives and unevenness. As with the first coat, you want to knock down any high spots and lumps after drying, and depending on how things are looking you might want to do some sanding. With Edwin we can mostly skip the sanding and just save it for the end. I have to sand when I’m going it alone.

Your final finish coat is primarily to fill in any of that weirdness, and Edwin likes to mix a soupy batch (think pancake batter!) and paint it onto the wall with a roller. It’s nice to have two people at this stage—one to mix and roll and the other to smooth.

Once it’s rolled, you work quickly to smooth it down—taking most of it off the wall as you go. Just enough to fill in pesky spots.

I might need to do this final coat a few times over as I continue to spot imperfections, but a more skilled skim coater can do it in one shot.

After that’s all totally dry, you can move on to the sanding! Confession time: right after I bought this house and was operating under the delusion that I’d be doing all the skim coating work myself, I bought myself this super expensive drywall sander that primarily just takes up room in my basement. It’s designed to hook into a running ShopVac to suck most of the dust, but honestly I find it difficult to control and I don’t like using it myself. Edwin is a big fan, though, and I often let him borrow it for jobs he’s doing. When sanding, even on a bright day, it’s good to shine a work light at an angle on the wall you’re working on—it just helps you see whatever needs to be sanded down.

This doesn’t get you entirely out of hand-sanding, though—you need to go back in with a sanding block around moldings and in corners and areas that are missed by first pass. After a first coat of paint, these seams where the wall meets molding get caulked.

The final step for me is typically knocking down the globs that like to accumulate on top of door casings and baseboards. You can’t see the top of the door casings if you’re just in the room, but I like knowing that these spots didn’t just get painted over because someone (who is me) was lazy.

So there it is, skim coating with Edwin! At this point, the room is pretty much ready to paint! Now I can get in there and tackle the moldings, CLEAN, and get some paint on these walls!

Den Renovation: Plaster Repair, Insulation, Drywall!

I think people assume I like demo, but I honestly kind of hate demo. Demo in an old house renovation, specifically. Partially because it’s often tinged with some sadness and guilt if it means disturbing or destroying original parts of the house (like plaster walls and ceilings that are beyond the point of saving, for instance). Partially because it’s hugely messy in a way that can never truly be contained to the space you’re working in. Partially because it typically involves hauling very heavy bags of waste and debris out of the house and then to the dump, and then paying money to get it out of my life…it’s not fun sledgehammer times like it looks on TV.

You know what I kind of secretly love, though? That part after the major demo work is done, when you get the chance to really prep everything for the next steps. It’s so satisfying? I like tedium. So after the ceiling in the soon-to-be upstairs den space was demolished and disposed of, I got to work* on what I really like, which is pulling all those little tiny lath nails, scraping off any stubborn bits of plaster, and ShopVac-ing what was left of the old cellulose insulation off the joists. CLEAN SLATE! It’s stuff like this that makes me immediately feel like I’m ready to go, and not just looking at a big mess I made.

*after several months of semi-successfully ignoring the situation completely

With the joists all cleaned up fancy, it was time to address the walls!

I feel I deserve the smallest amount of credit possible for mostly never really touching these walls until it was really time to deal with them. The entire second floor of my house is like this—the original wallpaper is covered in tons of layers of paint, possibly other wallpaper, masking tape and and caulk and joint compound in some places…and it all gets stripped off. This is not always necessary, but in my case the original wallpaper adhesive is barely holding on so it seems unwise/lazy to try to skim coat over it anyway. It’s just a matter of chip-chip-chipping away with a regular old putty knife and it all scrapes off fairly easily. I figure anything that’s really stuck can stay. The goal is just to create a solid, stable surface for the skim-coat to adhere to.

Wouldn’t it be great if I had the discipline to lay down some plastic sheeting first? When I’m a grown-up, I’m gonna prep like a champ. Until then I’ll just be…living my authentic truth. Or something.

Anyway, it’s a sort of messy process. What isn’t.

So fresh and so clean! Ha. But it is sort of satisfying right, if you ignore the mess on the floor?

Then, plaster washers! Or “plaster buttons,” depending on your mood. These things are amazing, and way more effective than you’d think from looking at them. Essentially it’s a small perforated stainless steel washer—a bit bigger than a quarter—with a hole in the center for a drywall screw. Often over time, the plaster “keys”—formed by the first layer of plaster squeezing through the lath and hardening on the backside, which holds the plaster securely to the lath—will have weakened or failed (or the lath itself has pulled away from the studs a bit), resulting in plaster walls that have some give when you push on them. This is not a good reason to demo the walls, I promise! Plaster washers are the answer! That small maybe 1/8″ gap between the wall and the door casing in the image above is the result of the plaster buttons pulling the whole wall back toward the studs, and now it doesn’t have any give at all.

Some people just use plaster washers around cracks or where it seems necessary, but my attitude about plaster washers is that more is more. Nothing wrong with some added security even for areas that appear to be in good shape.

Luckily, plaster washers are inexpensive and easy to install. If you’re working alone, I recommend inserting the screws on a bunch of washers first to get them prepped for yourself, but if you have a partner it’s nice to have one person install and one person prep each washer. It goes pretty fast.

Plaster washers are most effective if you’re hitting studs (or joists, for a ceiling), but stud-finders are pretty worthless with plaster walls. My wall framing tends to be close to the modern standard of 16″ on center, but it can be pretty irregular and you can’t count on it. That’s why god invented test-drilling! With a small bit (this is 1/8″), drill small holes every inch or so along the wall, and eventually you’ll hit a stud. Mark your location, and then measure out about 16″ and drill around there until you find the next one. When you have your studs marked, use a long level and a pencil to draw vertical lines along the length of each stud.

Test-drilling seems intimidating (how do I know if I’ve really hit a stud if I can’t see it?), but you get a feel for it very quickly. Become one with the drill. Become one with your walls. Use the force. I don’t know. Stop complaining.

Boom, look at all that secure plaster! I just eyeball the spacing but go for one about every foot on the verticals. This means that you need a LOT of washers—they come in packs of 25 but this room took about 250 of them. I know that sounds excessive but…that’s just the kind of guy I am? By the way, these are often hard to find in the hardware store and employees usually don’t know what they are, so ordering online isn’t a bad idea.

Some areas with cracks might need some special attention. Again, feel it out. Many of the cracks in this room appear to have been filled a long time ago with straight up concrete, so I scraped out what was loose or lumpy and left what remained. In general with plaster cracks, you want to scrape out the crack, cover it in fiberglass mesh tape or screening, and then proceed with patching with joint compound. People like to skip the first two steps and then wonder why their plaster cracks again in a year. Don’t do it to yourself.

I like to keep joint compound work contained to one lively stage of work, so even though the walls are now prepped we still gotta put in a ceiling! I added some metal brackets where the joists meet the top plate from that section of Lowe’s where joist hangers and stuff live, just for a little added structural strength. There are joist hangers specifically for this application, but none them fit the thickness of my joists so I improvised. Can’t hurt.

Then, insulation! I used fiberglass batt for this. I think the Olivebridge project forever scarred me against using fiberglass insulation because by the time I dug into those walls, the mice had turned most of it into nests and that shit is nasty (and doesn’t provide insulation value at that point). But assuming you don’t have a horrendous pest problem that persists for years, I guess fiberglass is fine. It’s whatever. Insulation is rated by R-value (higher = better, basically), but you also want to pay attention to the depth of the wall/ceiling where you’re installing. Even though a really thick fiberglass batt can be squeezed in to fit in a shallower wall cavity, this actually reduces the R-value and the insulation itself costs more. These joists are about the size of a modern 2×6, so I used this R-21 that’s ideal for 2×6 walls.

Now, if you’re installing a significant amount of insulation or especially if you’re doing it alone and on a ceiling, get yourself an electric—or, better yet, pneumatic—staple gun! I bought this little pneumatic guy for $50 and it was a total lifesaver, and I’ll get plenty of use out of it for all kinds of stuff. I should have bought one years ago!

FINALLY, DRYWALL!!! YAYYYY!!!! Somehow I transported 12′ sheets of drywall home by myself (we needed 10-footers to span the width of the room, but Lowe’s didn’t have them), and then Edwin and I tag-teamed putting them up. I’ve never installed a drywall ceiling before, but honestly with two people (each armed with their own ladder, drill, and supply of drywall screws), it wasn’t that bad at all. We had the whole thing put up in under an hour. We used 1/2″ drywall primarily because I already had a sheet or two and that saved a little cost/thinned the hoard, but 5/8″ would also be good/fine/maybe better.

You may note that when I had sheetrock ceilings installed three years ago, I was FREAKED OUT by the prospect of my ceilings not being perfectly level and flat, so Edwin and Edgar sistered new, flat 2×4 studs along each joist and then installed the drywall onto those to compensate for any wonkiness in the original joists. At the time I remember being very concerned that the ceiling would appear super wavy, like it would follow the high and low spots of each joist and look a total mess. Here, I didn’t do that. And the ceiling is, in fact, NOT quite level and perfect, but you definitely can’t see the impression of every joist or anything like that. Drywall has some flex but is a very rigid material, so any minor slants and dips happen so gradually over the span that they aren’t at all noticeable—and I think make the ceiling look more like a plaster ceiling and less like a perfectly new drywall one. #NoRegrets but I do feel like we could have skipped the sistering on the first floor and been just as happy if not more so. Live and learn.

Considering it wasn’t that long ago that looking up in this room meant seeing THIS, drywall made a huge and dramatic difference. All of a sudden the room was so bright! And so room-like! Fancy that!

I know, it’s all very exciting. Contain yourself!

Next, I did the thing I pledged I’d do years ago, then didn’t do for the bedroom, then really wish I had done for the bedroom: I hired Edwin to do the skim-coating. Edwin has been doing drywall and skim-coating work for years and years and is SO good at it, and it’s really the one part of renovating a room that I truly loathe, am not good at anyway, and takes me forever. A skilled skim-coater can knock out a room like this in a couple of days, achieve pretty perfect results, and allow you to move on with your life and do stuff you find more stimulating.

I did not do the thing that I also pledged I’d do, which is to use real lime-based plaster rather than joint compound. I talked to Edwin about it and we’re going to do that next time (hopefully from Master of Plaster—an amazing company down in South Carolina who make the real deal!)—he’s so good with a hawk and a trowel that I know he’ll pick it up quickly even though he’s never used it. But here, momentum led us to going with the devil we know that could be picked up from the hardware store a mile away. NEXT TIME, though. Kitchen, I’m looking at you.

The first order of business was essentially rebuilding the top of all the walls, where the multiple layers of ceiling demo had left a lot of crumbly bits and big gaps. My instinct with repairs like this would have been to cut out more of the plaster to create some clean level lines, patch with sheetrock, and then skim-coat, but Edwin just went right to filling these spots with copious amounts of joint compound. We used Durabond for this, which is a powdered joint compound that dries much harder than the pre-mixed All Purpose joint compound or EasySand alternatives. It’s also much more difficult to sand, so this is part of why having someone with skill do it is a huge asset.

I put up fiberglass mesh tape over the drywall seams while Edwin filled major gaps, and then we put up fiberglass mesh over about the top foot of all the walls, which effectively acts as a really wide mesh tape.

For this, we used a tip I picked up from Alex at Old Town Home years ago (along with the plaster washers—thank you, Alex!) and used window screening! It’s cheap, it’s fiberglass mesh, and it comes in rolls of various sizes that you can easily cut to whatever size you need. There’s a product in the drywall section for big applications like this, but it’s WAY more expensive and the window screening seems just as good. The only challenge is that the window screening doesn’t have an adhesive on the back like mesh tape does, so it’s a little tricky to get it into place and embed it in the joint compound. Still pretty easy, though.

With the top of all the walls repaired and the first coat of mud on the ceiling seams and screws, I got to work on the newly-rebuilt exterior wall! With sheetrock, you want to start from the bottom of the wall so you can rest subsequent sheets on the ones below while you install.

YES this looks insane but I used the same strategy that I used in the bedroom, which I’m pretty happy with: two layers of 1/2″ sheetrock, one on top of the other. A plaster wall including the lath is about an inch thick, so this allows the new drywall work to meet the original plaster in the corners and stuff, meaning your baseboards fall where they should to meet the existing baseboards on the adjacent walls. It also helps with the “hollowness” feeling of a single layer of drywall, adds a bit more structural strength to the wall, and has some minor insulation value. The first layer is also a nice way to use up all those little drywall scraps! This is a task for me, because I like being scrappy and using what I’ve got even when it looks insane and takes a while. Like a big puzzle!

The second layer gets much bigger sheets of drywall, primarily to lessen the likelihood of cracks developing along the seams over time. Then it’s just a matter of taping and mudding as normal, paying special attention to the corners where drywall and plaster meet.

CAN YOU SEE IT NOW? It’s almost a room! But not yet! Now the whole thing—plaster and drywall both!—will get skim-coated and sanded smooth, baseboard and window moldings have to go in, and then it’s on to caulking and painting and hanging up a proper light and putting in furniture and fretting about art placement and lounging forever on that massive sofa. Hooray!

Introducing: The Den!

I’ve been working on another room! In my house! Capturing some of the momentum from finishing the renovation work on my bedroom (well, mostly), I started working on one of the other most torn-apart rooms in the house a couple months ago, and have just been chipping away at it when I have time.

(No, I haven’t really started the kitchen renovation. No, I haven’t finished Bluestone Cottage. It’s a long story. We’ll get to it. But I can only do so many things at once, and after a long time of barely doing anything to the interior of my house except further destroy it while I was just a tad busy with some other projects like building an entire house in under a year, I needed to get a few things back in order with my own space to maintain a semblance of sanity. These things happen.)

This is the room, which we’ve rarely discussed here because it’s never really been a space I used! I think maybe the last time we talked about it was when I bought the house? At the time I called it the “middle bedroom” which is how I’ve continued to refer to it until now.

One sort of funny thing (maybe that’s not quite the right word) about renovating this house has been that even though it’s a pretty big house, it’s never felt all that much bigger than, say, my Brooklyn apartment. Much of the house is still unrenovated and not in use at all, aside from maybe storing stuff: the big living room, the downstairs bathroom, now the kitchen, the room above the kitchen, and this space. Some spaces haven’t been renovated but are chugging along in spite of that, performing their very basic and necessary functions. Until very recently that included the bedroom but also the only bathroom (it’s so bad, omg), the nursery, all closets, the hallways and stairs. And then there are the spaces that I have renovated, which can be difficult to maintain while other areas get renovated, such as the smaller living room, the dining room (which also currently houses the kitchen, haha), the laundry room, the little upstairs office, and now (thank goodness!) my bedroom!

A lot of the more recent and money-draining work on the house has been dedicated to exterior projects, which makes a huge difference in the appearance of the house from the outside and affects the interior—especially when we’re talking about adding windows or demolishing additions—but doesn’t tend to immediately improve the inside of the house. In fact, in the case of this room, it turned it from unrenovated-but-serviceable to…ruins.

So anyway. I guess what I’m really saying is three things.

The first is that my life is a mess.

The second is that while recovering from the fun and exciting financial strain of big exterior projects (and trying to save for upcoming things like the kitchen!), getting some simple rooms completed that can be finished on a “paint and joint compound” budget has been a good strategy for me. Even if that means renovating out of order in terms of need—in case you were wondering why this is coming before the kitchen. Kitchens cost a lot of money but rooms like this don’t.

And the third thing is that I’m almost at the four year mark of owning this house, and just starting to feel like I can…spread out a bit. Treating the house more or less like a much smaller apartment has led to things feeling kind of compacted and condensed—like using the bedroom as a place to sleep but also often as a place to watch TV, work, and eat. Increasingly there are separate spaces for doing different stuff, which just feels CRAZY. I used to have this recurring dream when I lived in New York, where I’d open a previously-unnoticed door in my apartment and find a whole other space behind it that I had no idea existed. It’s kind of like that, but in reality!

To orient ourselves a bit, the room we’re discussing is #4 on the floor plan above, highlighted in pink. It’s a decently sized room (about 10’x14′), but it’s kind of tricky—you have to walk through it to get to both the little office (#3) and the room above the kitchen (#5). I thought for a long time that I’d make this room into a guest bedroom, but that’s also the plan for the room above the kitchen, and it’s pretty awkward to have to walk through a bedroom to get to another bedroom. A bed does fit in this room, but doesn’t leave much space to maneuver around it (which you have to do to get to the other two rooms off of it, of course), so I realized that a guest bedroom in here might be a poor use of space.

Then it occurred to me: cozy den, please. One of my friends and fellow old-house-dwellers has a room on the second floor of his house that I like to refer to as the opium den. While the living room on the first floor is well-used but more formal, this secondary den space is where the TV lives, a big comfy sofa, a big upholstered ottoman, walls painted almost-black and covered in art and curiosities…it’s inevitably where the party ends up at the end of the night (not coincidentally, it’s also the room in the house where you’re allowed to smoke pot), and just a super cozy space to curl up, watch a movie, and eat chinese food.

Gimme dat.

SO. Like every other space, this one has marched through some changes as the rest of the house has gotten some updating around it. The room-by-room strategy to renovating is a myth because of this kind of thing. First off was addressing this radiator, which had this situation going on when I bought the house. That vertical pipe was a remnant of an older heating system and could be removed, and the radiator supply and return pipes that once ran up the corner of the dining room were removed and buried in the wall. I like to re-route radiator lines through walls and ceilings where possible—this house was built before radiator heating (or indoor plumbing, for that matter), so even though the radiators themselves aren’t going anywhere, it’s nice not to not see the pipes all over the place.

While the plumbers worked on re-running the lines, I patched in the floor! This is the only radiator in the house installed this way—over a painted panel instead of the flooring running below it, and I kind of wanted to center it on the wall (now I kind of wish I hadn’t), so anyway. The plumbers were sort of amazed to find that the whole subfloor had been cut out, too! And that the whole thing hadn’t ever come crashing through the dining room ceiling, since—newsflash—radiators are reallllllly heavy.

Anyway—I installed ledger boards on the joists below, patched in a new piece of subfloor, and then feathered in floorboards over that. I used boards from the downstairs bathroom, which look totally different but are the same size and species of wood (douglas fir), and should look the same once the floors are eventually refinished. Someday. I didn’t worry about the two boards closest to the wall being feathered because the radiator sits completely over the seam, and I was rushing to get done before the plumbers had to put the radiator back!

The room also got some electrical upgrades as parts of other projects, and then it sat for a couple of years. More or less untouched. Sad times.

Then toward the end of last summer, some big things happened. Like this bay window going away.

I know. I know. At first glance, you’re like—holy smokes, that’s awesome! What a fun feature of this room!

I also had that thought. Slowly, over time, that thought was replaced by other thoughts—not the least of which being that the whole thing was constructed on top of the collapsing solarium, and that was probably bad should the solarium ever decide to give way. Also it wasn’t original to the house. Also it was in very poor condition—missing the windows on each side, a terrible drywall job to cover up water damage from the leaking roof above it, some creative use of 1x lumber, noticeable settling…this was all done before I bought the house, and none of it was good. It also just felt…strange. I think because it wasn’t original to the house, this room isn’t really big enough to handle it. It felt proportionally totally off. And looked like a tumor on the exterior.

BYE.

So we cut it off. Kind of. It was slightly more complex than that. You can read about it here.

Then we framed in the new window. I tried to do as much of the exterior work from inside the house as possible so that I could minimize the amount of time that anything would be exposed to the elements or looking a damn mess for the neighborhood.

But look! I like this view because—really—it’s how the house is supposed to be. The way this new window lines up perfectly with the adjacent one in the little office feels emblematic of the organized way that a neoclassical house is designed and constructed. It looks right from the outside and feels right on the inside.

Once that wall was taken care of (structurally at least—clearly there is still work to be done!), we got a little demo-happy and ripped down the ceiling. I hate demo’ing plaster because it’s a horrendous mess but also because plaster and lath walls are better than new material options in a number of ways, and once it’s gone it’s gone. Unfortunately this ceiling had furring strips nailed into it and acoustic tiles installed onto those (likely installed in the 60s, when the original ceiling was probably showing signs of failure), and pulling down the furring strips tends to take a ton of plaster with them, at least in my experience. Of course, there’s blown-in cellulose insulation between the second floor ceilings and the attic floors, which is only really a bad thing when you have to rip out a ceiling and you don’t want all of it to come down with the ceiling. So the solution Edwin and I came up with was to take up the attic floorboards over this room, shovel out as much of the cellulose as we could into big contractor bags (BOY WAS THAT FUN), spray it all down with a garden sprayer to contain some of the dust, and then demo the ceiling as normal from below.

The worst.

Also, it was kind of nuts to be able to see the underside of my roof at this phase.

After some major clean-up, we put down new 3/4″ plywood subfloor in this section of the attic. The original boards are all varying widths and some cracked or splintered during removal, so re-laying the original floor is a project for another time. Also because I’m crazy I can’t guarantee this will be the last time I have to remove sections of the attic floor, and I’d rather be messing up new plywood than precious 150 year old pine planks.

This was all happening during the side-of-house restoration project, so the name of the game was doing just enough in here to make things OK, but all real energy and funds went toward getting the exterior buttoned up before winter hit. And that left…

This! Which I know looks like a sad, sad state of affairs but really represents a huge amount of progress! Framing is done, new attic subfloor is in, new electrical is run, and the reconstructed exterior wall is insulated (ceiling insulation comes next!)—so now the fun work begins! This room has a little bit of everything: carpentry around the new window and patching in the baseboard, new drywall work, plaster repair and skim-coating on the remaining three walls, and of course painting and furnishing and all that child’s play.

So here’s an idea of what I’m thinking! That’s the wall color in the upper left hand corner, followed by the trim and door color. I think I’m even going to try to paint the ceiling the wall color too and see how that goes! I’ve tried a couple times in the past—unsuccessfully—to paint a ceiling super dark and it’s never looked good, but I think this room will turn that streak around. Then we have another new medallion and another black radiator. The light is just something I dragged off the internet and then turned pink in Photoshop, but I do have a vintage light fixture with pink glass shades that I’m so excited to use! The sofa is also a Photoshopped version of this sofa from Roger and Chris, which is just sort of similar to the sofa I’m getting from…the Brinson’s! I’ve recently become friends with fellow bloggers and upstate NY dwellers Susan and Will, and they’re getting rid of their big boxy super-stuffed leather gigantic mass of a sofa, and something tells me that Mekko is never going to leave it. Then my little bright blue Eames rocker (which hasn’t been used since I moved from Brooklyn! I missed it!) and a side table I’ve hoarded for a few years from JC Penney, which was part of the Terence Conran collection and I bought when it went on sale, even though I didn’t know what I’d do with it! Sometimes you just gotta! Then there’s the Rise Floor Lamp and Balla Sheepskin from Article (this post isn’t sponsored, but they did provide those two products for an upcoming post that will be), and another old oriental rug because that’s how I do.

Yay, opium den! Let’s do it!

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