If you were unfortunate enough to catch my last post, you will be relieved to know that I started work on my bathroom! Even though I keep talking about this as a “small” renovation, a “light refresh,” a “quick and cheap fix,” I’m not sure this room has any truly quick fixes. You’ve seen it. It’s rough. As a result, the entire house has been thrown into total chaos and immediate disarray. This phenomenon seems to happen every time, and each time I regard it with a renewed sense of wonder. It doesn’t seem like this task would require every tool and supply I’ve ever owned, and yet…all the DIY paraphernalia now scattered around the upstairs begs to differ.
I think the lesson broadly might be that bathrooms are no joke, especially if you only have one. They just involve more than, say, a bedroom, plus they’re small which makes the work awkward and uncomfortable. When you’re working on a living space, it’s easy enough to just avoid living in that space until the work is done…but it is not easy to avoid going to the bathroom. I, for one, typically have to do it several times a day. Which is why I’m definitely glad I’m not gutting this bathroom right now, and also already cannot wait for this to be over. Ha!
GOOD. BYE. FORMICA. You have served valiantly as the shower surround but it is time for you to depart. I got lots and lots of helpful suggestions for the bathroom after my last post (thank you!!! y’all are smart.), which ranged from “try to work with the Formica!” to “OMG KILL IT WITH FIRE,” and I fell more into that latter camp. It was barely clinging to the walls so taking it down was a no-brainer.
Next, I had to get rid of that dumb wall at the end of the tub. “Had to” is strong wording—I wanted to. REALLY wanted to. If the bathroom were a littttttttle bit wider, it probably would have made more sense to keep, but that space it created was just so narrow and deep and awkward and dark and skeevy, I just wanted it gone. The wall was built whenever this tub was put in, and the side facing into the shower was made up of scraps of plywood which were then skim-coated in joint compound and then covered in Formica. Fancy!
IS IT BEAUTIFUL YET? Yikes. The plaster walls under the Formica are luckily in very good condition, all things considered.
By the way, while we’re taking in this spa-like view, several of you suggested/insisted on changing the swing of the door, and you know what? You’re absolutely right! I even noted the awkward swing of the door 6 years ago when first writing about this bathroom, but completely forgot it bothered me over the course of the intervening years. It’s funny how you just get used to things. But now that it’s been brought to my attention again, it’s all I can think about…add it to the list.
WELL, WELL, WELL, WHAT HAVE WE HERE? Removing the wall at the end of the tub allowed me to see under the tub for the first time, and I saw wood floors! And not, like, wide and gappy and soft wood subfloors that I can see from below, but nice finished hardwood. It also allowed me to see that these hardwood floors were residing under only one thin layer of plywood subfloor and vinyl tile, not the several layers of mayhem I suspected I’d find. INTERESTING.
So, I had PLANNED to just peel up the existing vinyl tiles, do whatever I needed to do to prep the plywood subfloors, and put down new peel-and-stick vinyl tiles. I’d found these Stainmaster black “obsidian” large-scale hex tiles at Lowe’s, which seemed like they’d be fast and affordable at about $2/square foot, and they’re cute! It’s nice to see something different than 12″x12″ vinyl—AND, these are GROUTABLE? What is this sorcery? The product shots in finished rooms look pretty great and I’d bought 5 boxes and was prepared and weirdly stoked to go for it.
Upon seeing the wood floors…I was still prepared to go for it? A glimpse of hardwood is not the same as seeing the whole room of hardwood, and someone probably covered them up for reason, like rot, that I don’t want to face. Plus, removing the plywood subfloor would entail temporarily removing that sink—or somehow just its legs, which rest on the floor—a prospect that strikes complete and utter fear into my heart.
I’m not sure I can stress this last point enough. The sink is super beautiful and old and theoretically valuable and fragile and I cannot and will not risk it for the purposes of this renovation. I don’t even really understand how it’s mounted, particularly the backsplash piece which I think might be mortared to the wall like a big tile. Someday, I will have to face this, I suppose. Today? Hell no. This is also why I didn’t even really consider tiling the floor with ceramic or porcelain tile because that would add thickness to the floor and necessitate removing and re-mounting the sink a little higher. There is seriously nothing in this world I would rather do less than fuck with that sink.
In addition to the sink, there’s also a radiator in the room and that presents kind of the same problem. It would be nice if radiators were easy to remove and put back on a whim, but it’s a pain and I wanted to avoid that as well.
So now I am not even one full day into this DIY event and at a crossroads that is causing IMMEASURABLE stress. I am not at all dramatic, why do you ask?
Don’t ask me how; I couldn’t tell you. But I got the floor out. Lots of careful cutting with my handy Dremel MultiMax MM50 to get the subfloor into pieces small enough to shimmy out from underneath the legs, which can be carefully maneuvered this way and that without the whole thing crashing down. It was intense. But everyone survived, most importantly the sink.
ANYWAY, floors!! For the most part, the floors were in pretty great shape. There was a little water damage near the toilet and a big patch where plumbing had been run behind the sink, but overall…I’ve seen much worse!
Then I started sanding them, and…what’s this?! The floors in my house are all yellow pine or fir—both very common wood types for flooring here—but I think these are…maple?! Huh! I almost never see maple floors in this region. Interesting!
By the way, even though I just refinished that little floor in my closet, I WAY underestimated the amount of sanding here. Maple is so much harder than pine. I found that if I hand-scraped the old finish (shellac, I think?) before sanding, it went a little faster and saved me from having to replace the sanding pads every 5 seconds, but it was still slow and kind of awful to do with just a little orbital sander.
I took up the old patch behind the sink, which I think was made of shipping pallets? Super rough and uneven wood; not worth saving.
I didn’t have any maple, but I did have boards from the yellow pine patch that I pulled out of the living room when I installed the faux fireplace several years ago in there! The boards are the same width as the maple, and this floor is so full of “character” anyway that a conspicuous patch job doesn’t really bother me. I actually think it’s kind of charming?
So do you, admit it.
NOT BAD, RIGHT? I loved the light tone of the unfinished maple, so I used some leftover Bona NaturalSeal before applying poly. The NaturalSeal has a little bit of white pigment in it, which lets the wood maintain an unfinished look rather than darkening with polyurethane. Then I followed up with two coats of Bona Traffic HD in Satin, which I also had on hand in the basement.
Oh HELLO, floors! I am very pleased. I know that wood floors aren’t everyone’s ideal for a bathroom, but I am more than happy to have these in here. Plus, aside from some sanding pads, they were free! I’m sure I will still have no problem spending my $1,000 budget, but being able to return the vinyl floor tile definitely helps.
A couple more random and possibly interesting things about the bathroom! I didn’t notice that it wasn’t showing up in photos, but the lower half of the walls in this bathroom are not smooth plaster, and they aren’t painted tile either—they’re Keene’s cement! Keene’s cement is a very hard and durable plaster developed in 1838 that was often used in public spaces and other areas needing a hard-wearing surface. I think it maintained popularity until about the 1920s or so, but it’s still in production! My Keene’s cement looks like 6×6 tiles in a running bond pattern. A lot of you guys recommended simple subway tile or something similar for the shower surround—which would be perfect and really affordable—but I got super hung up on having real tile right up next to this more subtle fake tile walls. Maybe that’s dumb? It just seemed…not right. I also got concerned that the toilet, sink, and tub are all different shades of glazed white, and I’d regret adding yet another shade of glazed white. Maybe that’s also dumb? Regardless, I’m taking the opportunity to do something different and kind of unlike me and I think I’m into it.
Anyway! Also of note in that image above: that wall was covered in Formica, so I’d never seen what was hiding underneath—which looks distinctly like years of someone painting around a radiator! A tall and narrow radiator tucked into this corner rather than this lower/longer one that’s here now must have been nice. I wonder what happened to it. It’s cool to see the original beige-y paint on that Keene’s cement, though. Dare I say, I like it?
Also, I took down the mirror to get to work on the walls! The backing is embossed with this “The Brasscrafters” logo, which appears to have gotten its start in 1899. They made all the bathroom things: mirrors, soap dishes, shelves, towel rods, hooks, toilet paper holders, and so on—I really enjoyed scrolling through this catalog from the 20s and finding my mirror!
The clips that hold the mirror backing into place dates the patent at 1904, although it looks like these mirrors were in production for a few decades so I’m not sure when mine was actually made/installed.
I don’t see any manufacturer stamp on the sink itself, but a commenter named Margaret pointed out that it sure looks a helluva lot like a JL Mott sink, which some googling confirmed. Look at this one, which they say was made in 1892! Cool cool.
The shelf brackets are stamped “S. Sternau & Co Brooklyn NY,” which was started in 1893 and later became Sterno, the brand name that’s synonymous with their signature product, canned heat!
Would you like to know something insane? OK I’LL TELL YOU. Last Friday was the anniversary of the closing on my house. 3 whole years!!!!
Just kidding, it’s 4 years.
Actually wait, 5 years.
Fuck. It’s 6 years. I have some feelings about it, as you might expect.
The very first time I came to Kingston, it was for a weekend with friends. We stayed in an Airbnb only a few blocks from the house I’d later go on to buy. Some sleuthing revealed that the owners (now friends of mine—something that tends to happen when you move to a place like this!) were a couple of young guys who had bought the house less than a year prior to our stay. The house was very nice, and every part of it had seemingly received some level of attention to prepare it for comfortable occupancy. Walls had been skimmed and painted, furniture and window treatments installed, and the oak floors refinished to a pleasant shade of medium brown.
So it’s with some cringing embarrassment that I’ll now admit to feeling like the renovation was nice enough, but…could have been better. Freshly painted acoustic tiles still covered some original plaster ceilings, new electrical work had been run in exposed plastic channels rather than behind walls and ceilings, and inexpensive floating laminate flooring hid what was likely layers of old flooring in the kitchen. The bathrooms had been updated with a sheet of linoleum flooring, that unconvincing variety meant to look like natural stone, and the chipped and broken 1930s wall tiles had been painted a deep navy—including the mastic that was revealed when some of them had fully detached—rather than restored or replaced. All of this struck me as kind of a bummer. It was all fine but also not what I would have done. I held this belief with all the authority of somebody whose restoration experience started and ended with spending two years fixing up a 600 square foot Brooklyn apartment. If I’d only had a house, I could show these people how it was really done. Thoroughly. Lovingly. Do it right or don’t do it at all.
Sitting here today, I wish I could go back and slap that judge-y expression right off my dumb fucking face. What these owners had done was not only practical but smart: in most cases they’d done just enough to make the house cozy and clean, which in turn allowed them to begin renting it, which in turn augmented their income, which in turn allowed them to save for the renovations they’d complete down the line. I just hadn’t given them the benefit of the doubt that they had further plans beyond what I could see. Eventually they put in a very nice brand new kitchen. They renovated the bathrooms in a classic and elegant style befitting of a Victorian home. Having a “good enough” kind of solution in the interim took the pressure off to do it all at once, and allowed them to do something within mere months that I have not been able to comfortably do for six years: to stop apologizing. To host overnight guests and dinner parties. To have the flexibility to put the renovation on hold because everything is already fine.
To be fair: comparing your renovation to your perception of someone else’s is generally unhelpful. All houses are different. While their bathroom tiles on the first floor had been damaged from 80 years of use, mine had been ripped from the wall because they were spattered with human remains. While their exterior work mostly entailed repainting and gardening, mine has involved tearing down multiple additions and reimagining entire elevations. It’s been difficult—to say the least—to prioritize all the many moving parts of renovating this house, and I’m positive I’ve erred from time to time in that agenda-setting. I’m sure I will continue to, because it’s hard. Like everyone else, I’m at the mercy of time and money and weather and a million other challenges big and small with a project of this scope.
And yet: SIX. YEARS. And it’s hard to imagine there aren’t at least another six ahead of me, and probably six more after that. It’s a slog. A satisfying, gratifying, at times exciting, sometimes fun, difficult-to-explain, always educational, and frequently humbling slog. Nothing in my house brings this into sharper relief than my bathroom.
Yes, I have a bathroom. I showed it to you once, almost 6 years ago, when it looked like this. In preparation to sell, obviously someone had done some rushed repair work on the walls and put in a new drywall ceiling, which was slowly being ruined by the still-leaking roof above. Given that the downstairs bathroom was basically a crime scene, this one didn’t seem so bad. As is my habit, I was blinded by a few things.
FOR EXAMPLE, THIS SINK. I mean. There were so many parts of this house that I loved at first sight, but this sink was high on that list. The idea that someone else might buy the house and rip it out made me even more determined to make sure it was mine. Sometimes when people are over I like to joke that I hope the dump will accept it when I get around to replacing it, just to watch the reaction. It’s endlessly fun to me and only me.
Above the sink is this sweet little glass shelf and this beautiful mirror. Of course I can’t be sure, but I’d guess that the sink/shelf/mirror combo hasn’t changed since the bathroom was first installed around 1890.
Where did the 1890 date come from? This hurts, you guys. This bathroom had its original toilet when I bought the house. Most toilet tank lids have a manufacturing date stamped on the underside, and I’m pretty sure this one said 1890. The plumbing wasn’t turned on until a few hours before we had to start living here, so we didn’t realize that none of it really worked—the waste line running from this bathroom to the basement had an impressive crack all the way down it, both toilets in the house leaked…I don’t know, it was a bad scene that we needed to deal with ASAP. At the time, I was precious about plenty of things (see: sink) but not an old toilet—old toilets are finicky and inefficient and a little gross, right?!
DAMNIT, DANIEL. Let’s pretend that the base and the tank were irreparably cracked or something, which might actually be true. But what I absolutely know is true is that I went out and bought a new toilet—a totally basic and inexpensive Kohler—and oversaw plumbers as they removed this one. Which, after lots of grunting and moaning and jostling, ended with one of the guys taking a SLEDGHAMMER to the base to get it out. It was stuck down to that little painted platform (probably installed to cover some rotted flooring—I don’t want to know) with some crazy adhesive putty stuff and they just could not get it to budge.
Hindsight, man. It hurts sometimes. I’m not trying to tell you how to run your life (lol yes I am), but if you have an original toilet…toilets haven’t changed that much since their inception, except sadly in the way they look, and can usually be retrofitted with new parts to bring them back into perfect working order. Pretty much without exception, toilets made before the 1950s are SO pretty, and I really don’t quite understand why nobody is reproducing these elegant old designs. There are decent options I’m aware of for historic renovations—as in, they might fit in more seamlessly than something decidedly modern—but they really don’t look like any actual old toilet I’ve seen. Someone ought to do something about this issue of grave social concern.
Enough about the toilet. I can’t think about it anymore. The nice old shitter with the wall-mounted tank is long gone and that’s that. Keep an eye out for very old toilets because I want to put one back someday.
Which brings us to the tub! This is very obviously not the original tub. It’s probably from the 1960s? But it is enameled cast iron and 100% decent. Never in a million years would I pick it for this bathroom, but there’s nothing wrong with it.
Except for the hot and cold valves, which both leak like crazy when they’re on. I have done exactly nothing to try to identify the source of the leak or improve the situation, in spite of the wild temperature fluctuations that occur during most showers, or the way you have to avoid standing in a certain spot lest the leak from the hot valve scald your delicate ankles.
Also, note the shower surround. That is not tile. That is certainly not a slab. That is…Formica!! In fact it’s the exact same Formica that clad the first floor kitchen’s countertops when I moved in.
I don’t think this has ever been what Formica is for, so on one hand it’s held up impressively well—by which I mean, it’s still clinging to the wall. On the other hand, it’s fucking disgusting and slathered in generous layers of caulk and a light spattering of mold and…sigh, I am a trash human.
The floor, by the way, is a vinyl tile that looks kind of like terrazzo. I am a life-long terrazzo fanatic, and there’s actually something I kind of like about the floor except that it’s in this bathroom. The colors are so aggressively unpleasant and the tiles are lifting off the plywood subfloor and a couple of them have broken. CHIC!
And so. After 6 years of living, the bathroom looks like this. It’s funny—I recently told a houseguest with absolute certainty that the walls have always been exactly as peel-y as they appear in this photo, but looking back I can see that isn’t true. Which really speaks to the extent to which I’ve truly turned a blind eye to this room, to the point that I didn’t notice that it was, evidently, actively degrading around me.
Very small efforts have been made. Very small things have happened by necessity. Note how there is some shelving crammed in there between the tub and the wall. A colorful shower curtain is trying and failing very hard to make things mildly cheerful. I hung a couple hooks for towels.
What is happening in this image? Well. There’s a crumpled fabric bin thing on top of the toilet tank to hold excess stuff because there’s not enough storage in here. That little print next to the shelf is concealing some large holes I made almost 6 years ago, when I was trying to install an outlet and decided a 1″ spade bit was a good choice for test-drilling. First I ran into the cast iron vent pipe. Then I ran into the dead gas line for the original lighting. Undeterred, I then ran into a stud. All with this massive drill bit! I have learned some things, thank god.
The larger print “covers” a hilariously awkwardly placed hole where I did successfully install the outlet, only to remove it a couple of years later when the electric to this room got eliminated in the course of other work. That’s when I ran new electric but in exposed conduit this time, since I didn’t want to take out walls or ceilings. Since there’s no active electric currently in the old upstairs kitchen—the room behind that wall—I stuck a power strip through the hilariously awkward hole in the wall to allow me to power a few tools.
It’s called elegance, look it up.
The light over the sink is a Radar Sconce from Schoolhouse Electric, bequeathed to me by my mother who ordered it for her place but then couldn’t use it. It has got to be the worst-looking installation of what’s otherwise a nice light in history. I’m sorry, Schoolhouse. You make nice things and I don’t deserve them.
The window is nice. The top sash contains the only stained glass in the house, and the bottom sash is one big piece of glass rather than divided like all my other windows. I put a piece of vinyl window frosting over it for privacy.
Note that the formica continues around this side of the room on the lower half of the walls. I got this little cabinet from IKEA, which turns out to be cute but nearly worthless when it comes to storage.
SO ANYWAY. Now you have an intimate and detailed glimpse of the space where I have cleaned my body and wiped my butt for the past 6 years. I have unburdened myself and now you get to live with this very likely unwanted information. No matter how much I clean this bathroom, it always looks and feels dirty, and I’m truly mortified whenever someone other than myself needs to use it.
“You didn’t shower, right?” This is what I asked my friend Anna, the cleanest half-Swede and best caulk artist I know, recently over coffee after an overnight stay.
“Oh no,” she replied. “I’m afraid of your shower,” seeming to imply that she would have showered, had the conditions looked less like a staph infection waiting to happen. I cherish this moment because it was so perfectly honest. A polite stranger might lie about forgetting their shampoo or liking to shower at night, but a true friend gives you the straight dope. I love you, but you’re living like a wild animal.
It’s hard to imagine that over the course of six years, never has this bathroom floated to the top of a priority list. You might be thinking why not just…and believe me, I have the same thought all the time. But if you’ll excuse some brief self-compassion, it really just hasn’t been a priority. As-is, it’s ugly as hell but it works. It successfully performs all the basic functions of a bathroom—whereas at various times the house has been without heat, hot water, a kitchen, a bedroom, various exterior walls…there’s just always been something that at least felt more pressing or essential.
At the same time, my hesitance to make any improvements to the bathroom has probably been informed by the kind of thinking I described at the beginning of this post: do it right or don’t do it at all. Whether or not the bathroom would eventually need a full renovation has never really been up for debate, so I have essentially been waiting for that full renovation and avoiding anything less. And I really do mean avoiding—I mean, LOOK at those walls. Don’t you want to just yank those peeling parts off?? Can you imagine the prolonged exercise in self-control of leaving it alone? Because I know myself well enough to know this: once I start, I will be powerless to stop. And then I have opened another can of worms when I’m already juggling the dozen cans of worms open in front of me. A small gesture like scraping the walls or re-caulking the tub will inevitably spiral, and it’s a dangerous and slippery slope into total chaos from there. And so: blinders, on.
The problem, of course, with putting this stuff off “until the big renovation” is finally, to me at least, evident: that big renovation is a long way off. Years, not months. And I just cannot anymore. The bathroom is gross and makes me feel bad, and unfortunately it will not improve on its own no matter how much I nag it. So I’m going to do…something.
I’m giving myself a week. A week to deal with the floors, the walls, the shitty plumbing, the lack of storage, the bad lighting, the formica shower surround…all of it. I am absolutely determined to keep all walls and ceilings intact—once the plaster goes, then so does the brick nogging, and then I’m dealing with potential structural issues (no evidence of this, but…ya know) and insulation and vapor barriers and cement board and then what the hell, let’s rip out the tub, and THAT IS NOT HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. I’m also giving myself a thousand dollars, by which I mean my corporate overlords at Lowe’s have agreed to provide exactly this sum in materials and I will gladly take it and very likely spend it all. It sounds like a lot of money but I’m sure it’ll go fast.
Just as I haven’t expended significant effort on fixing up the bathroom, I have not allowed myself to put significant thought into what I would do with it if I could! So…I dunno. Wish me luck? Tell me what to do? My current plan is no plan, so…tell me your thoughts.
Making the closet all fancy and functional made me really want to turn my attention back to some loose ends in the bedroom, including a long-standing plan to install a mantel on this wall you see before you. Is it a priority? Not at all. But I’m working on various other things right now, so chipping away at a small project like this at home helps me feel like things are still progressing while my attention is elsewhere, ya know?
Originally, there was a chimney behind that wall (now removed to make space for the laundry machines!), and a big vent-hole-shaped patch job on the upper part of the wall leads me to believe there was some kind of stove in here (coal, I think?) to heat the room in the winter. This was before the house was fitted for radiators, and to be honest I’m a little unclear about how this stuff was set up.
Anyway. See how the baseboard is patched in down there, to the right of the closet door? And it doesn’t really match?
Yeah. I also see that. I have seen it everyday for years. I wake up in the morning looking at that terrible patch job and drift off to sleep looking at it, too. I didn’t fix it back when I renovated the bedroom a few years ago, thinking I’ll do something about that. Someday.
Also problematic: those two very awkward outlets I had the electrician add years ago. At the time, I thought this was the most natural spot to put a bed, and having outlets just behind the headboard for lamps and phone chargers makes a lot of sense…but now they just look stupid. This was also before I found out that outlets in the baseboards—where they were usually placed old houses when they were first retrofitted for electric—were still allowable. I love baseboard outlets!
If you have a little electrical know-how, moving an outlet from a wall and into a baseboard isn’t too challenging, especially if the wiring is coming up from below rather than down from above. In the process, I cut off the supply to the outlet on the left so it could be eliminated, traced the new box on the baseboard, and got to work cutting out the hole!
OK, so I have a new tool friend to introduce you to. She goes by Dremel Multi-Max MM50, and she’s great. I’ve mentioned before the importance of having an oscillating saw for all sorts of common renovation tasks (cutting clean lines in plaster/drywall, under a door casing to install new flooring, cutting out hardwood flooring to patch holes, cutting through lath, shaving foam insulation before installing walls…). I finally bought one 4-ish years ago, and it’s an indispensable part of my toolkit—right there with the drill and the hammer and the pry bar. Up until now I’ve been working with an older Porter Cable model that I’ve always liked, so when Lowe’s asked if I’d give this Dremel version a try for this project, I agreed to try it but told them that I liked my current one and, basically, this better be good.
It is good! Dremel nailed it. The Multi-Max MM50 comes with a bunch of blades and accessories to get you started and even a nifty little carrying bag, so at $129 it’s a great value for everything that comes in the box. Those accessories add up fast when you have to buy them all individually, and having them included is a nice way to try out a bunch of them beforehand—some will prove more useful than others depending on what you’re doing, and you may find that you just like certain ones better than others as a matter of personal preference. So it’s nice to have a sampling.
If you’ve used another oscillating saw, you’ll notice a couple things right away with the Multi-Max MM50: the compact angled head (helpful for tight spaces!) and the motor. As you can see in the first photo in this post, the tool curves up at the end, which really helps with getting the cut you need when you’re up against a flat surface like the floor. It’s also just more comfortable and ergonomic to hold, which ultimately makes it safer to use since you aren’t putting your hands in awkward positions to do what you need to do.
The major, major difference between this multi-tool and all the ones I’ve used in the past is that it’s so smoooooth. It can be hard to control oscillating saws because they tend to vibrate a lot and jump all over the place, which is incredibly annoying when you’re trying to make clean, precise cuts (and when aren’t you, really?). I often end up with little knicks around where I was trying to cut that have to be filled later. Not so with the Dremel Multi-Max MM50! It was so easy to control that I could take photos with one hand while using the tool with the other, ha! I used this thing during every phase of this project and it made the work easier and faster, but also kept me from having to lug ALL the tools out since this little guy does so many things on its own. That’s a big deal when you’re trying to renovate in the room you sleep in!
After cutting out my rectangle, I drilled a drywall screw partway into the part of the wood I was removing and used my hammer to pry it out. From there, it was just a matter of pulling the cables through, inserting them through the back of a remodel box, and installing the remodel box into the baseboard. Then I just had to hook up the outlet, flip the power back on, and recheck my work to make sure I didn’t screw anything up. Success!
With the outlet out of the way, I assembled my supplies.
Almost two years ago now, I was driving down the road and passed by this little number. My first thought, of course, was WHY OH WHY OH WHY WOULD YOU TEAR THAT OUT? You can see a glimpse of the house it came out of in the background, which I’ve actually been inside, but that’s a whole different story. It’s spectacular and needs a ton of work. It dates from around 1800, but the interior details are very similar to my house and…anyway. I scurried home, measured, and was delighted to discover that the space I had was 4′ across, and this mantel was…4′ across. SOLD.
Welcome to my home, salvaged mantel. Now join the madness in this Hoard Room of Doom and I will call you when your time has come.
Almost a year later, I came across this random slab of marble at a yard sale. $10! I think I posted about this acquisition to Instagram stories to see if anyone had thoughts on what I could do with it. It’s 4′ wide and 16″ deep and…eventually someone suggested using it as a hearth. I think I said it was too small or something before realizing it’s actually…perfect for this someday-bedroom-fireplace-project. SORRY, SOMEONE. YOU ARE A GENIUS. THANK YOU FOR HAVING MY BACK.
The last piece of the puzzle was what to do with the large central opening in the mantel—you know, like where the fire would be. Since this is just a 2×4 partition wall, I definitely don’t have the depth for an actual firebox (it didn’t exist here originally, anyway), but still wanted to create the illusion of one. Otherwise it would just be a mantel tacked to the wall with drywall in the center—which you see a lot, by the way, in instances where fireplaces have been bricked up and plastered over in favor of more modern heat systems, but it always just looks to me like something that wants to be un-done and restored.
As it happens, this was the hardest thing to source because the fireplace opening is only 28″ across, and most of these cast iron surrounds are in the 30″-32″ range. On top of that, I needed to find one with a summer cover! The summer cover is that removable intricate metal grate that would have concealed the firebox in the summer when it wasn’t in constant use. Sometimes you can mix and match and create a pair that fits together, but I got lucky and found this matched set at a salvage place in town. I paid $125 for it. If you don’t have a salvage place at your disposal, places like eBay, Etsy, and online architectural salvage places are good for these kinds of parts, too.
This is totally the kind of project that is going to be a little different for everyone with lots of head-scratching and problem-solving along the way. That’s OK! There are no stakes! It’s called play, people! Have fun with it. My idea of fun is assembling a rag-tag collection of salvaged stuff and trying to make it all work nicely together. If your idea of fun is designing and building your own mantel from scratch, go for it! I’m not the boss of you!!
I removed the patched in baseboard. Even though we’re dealing with separate pieces, the amount of caulk and paint (and masking tape, it turned out!) between the two means that just going at it with a pry bar could carry the risk of damaging the original baseboard, which I was trying to preserve! Switching to the wood/metal blade, I just zipped the Multi-Max up the seams to break any bonds, which ended up including some unexpected nails driven in at an angle that attached the patch to the original board. Had I tried to just pry it off, I probably would have split the original baseboard and been so sad.
With the baseboard patch removed, I put the mantel in place and traced the shape of the firebox, where I’d be cutting out the plaster. I needed the extra depth to recess the metal fireplace surround enough for it to look right.
Switching to the drywall and wood blade, I went about cutting out the section of plaster I wanted to remove. So clean! I’ve had electricians make a REAL mess of plaster walls trying to run new lines or install electrical boxes with a hammer and a prayer, and now I insist that they use an oscillating saw for clean, easily-patchable cuts—even if it means borrowing mine. I’m really fun to have on a job site, according to me.
I put the mantel back into place, securing it temporarily to the wall with one screw. I pretty much dry-fitted things over and over again until it all worked.
Naturally, the floor in this room is rather sloped! I needed the left side to be about 1/2″ higher to make the mantel level, which means the right side could be 1/2″ lower and produce the same result.
I actually needed a slightly angled cut that would follow the slope of the floor rather than a perfect 90 degree cut. It worked nicely to place a piece of 1/2″ stock on the floor, and trace a line where it hit all the way around the part I needed to remove, and then just cut it out with the Multi-Max. Does that make sense? I switched back to the wood blade and zipped through it. This was approximately 900 times easier and faster than finagling this thing onto a pair of sawhorses and trying to do it with a circular saw.
Speaking of easy and fast: one of the major differences with these tools I haven’t mentioned is the ease of switching from one attachment to another. My first one actually needed a little allen wrench to change out the attachments—I MEAN, CAN YOU IMAGINE? Total pain. So easy to lose. Never again. The Multi-Max MM50, though, doesn’t need any tools—you just turn that knob on the top and press the blue button in the middle, put on a new blade, and turn the knob back to tighten. Nice! In fairness, my Porter Cable’s tension design for changing attachments is even more fast and seamless than the Dremel’s, but all-around this is still the better tool because of the aforementioned compact angled head and lack of vibration.
With the mantel leveled off, I put the marble hearth in place! It actually looked pretty nice just sitting on top of the floor, but I knew making it flush with the hardwood would be a lot nicer to live with and just look more authentic. Luckily the marble is the exact thickness (about 3/4″) of the hardwood floor, so this was not difficult. I used painter’s tape to mark the edges, pushing the marble toward the wall enough so that the front would align with the existing seam between two boards.
Back to the wood and metal blade! I wasn’t sure if I’d run into any nails (I did!) so using this blade was a safe bet. Steady hand, patience, and a good tool!
A note on these blades: they do wear out, sometimes rather quickly depending on what you’re cutting. This old yellow pine is pretty dense, so I used one blade just on cutting out this flooring. In theory the tool can handle a lot, but for cuts much bigger than this I’d likely want to break out the circular saw and just use the multi-tool for the first and last few boards to extend the life of the multi-tool blades. Those wood/metal blades are about $17 a pop, so it’s something to think about! Of course, in some situations—cutting the bottom of a door casing to slip new flooring underneath, for instance—a multi-tool is pretty much your only option unless you want to use a manual flush-cut saw like it’s the 18th century.
With the cross-cuts made and the boards removed, I again used the Multi-Max to shave off the remaining tongue on the last board so the marble will sit right up to the wood without a big gap.
LOOKS LIKE PROGRESS RIGHT?! I can’t wait to refinish these floors.
I ended up removing the lath from the area behind the summer cover, too, and building this simple little plywood box to the depth of the wall and painting it black. Totally winging it at this point. Making it work. I promise it was all making sense in my head. Mostly. I changed course a few times on how I wanted to do things.
Finally, time for the part I’d been dreading all along: getting the mantel paint-ready! There was quite a bit of flaking paint, and even some weird textured paint or old adhesive or something on the top, so I switched to a flexible scraper blade to try to address it!
To be honest with you, I’m not sure under what circumstances this blade would be more effective or preferable to manual scraping. It didn’t work well for me. I switched to the rigid scraper blade, but that might have been worse…too little pressure and it didn’t really do anything, too much pressure and it would gauge the wood. Maybe I’m missing something? I’m not sure. Scraping paint is a generally sucky task so I had hoped this would make it easier/faster, but I ended up just spending the hour and a half manually scraping and called it a day. Mask, on!
When I strip paint, generally, I don’t worry too much about going down to bare wood—for me it’s more about promoting good adhesion than making the piece look brand new when it’s repainted. Maybe it’s the years of living in NYC, but I think a little paint build-up on woodwork is nice.
With the mantel in place and secured with long screws into the studs in a few places, the last thing to do was remove the little section of baseboard to the left of the mantel. Ha! I was off by an inch. You’ll notice also that the hearth stone is about 1/2″ too long, but it’s not noticeable once the baseboard is patched.
This is why you NEVER throw away original trim! When you’re dealing with such limited quantity, even very small scraps can be worth saving for exactly this kind of thing. This piece came out of the bedroom when I put in the new window! Back from whence it came.
On the back of the metal surround, there are little holes that would have originally held these long metal hooks to keep the thing in place, but those are long gone. I just used a little picture frame wire, leaving that little hoop at the end for a drywall screw to secure it to that black plywood frame.
Like I said. You’ll figure it out. Trust yourself.
This wall is REALLY uneven. Back when I renovated this room, I definitely recall thinking that when I got around to the mantel project, I’d just demo the plaster altogether. Most of the original plaster in my house is in great shape, but the years have not been kind to this wall. But it seems to be generally stable from Round 1 of renovations on this space, and I think I embrace imperfection more than I used to. Anyway, rather than just caulk the gaps (which I did downstairs and regret), I skimmed out the wall around the fireplace with Quick-Set Lite 45 to make it look like it’s always been there. It’s such a small thing but I really think it makes a difference in this case! To keep dust to a minimum (still the only bedroom!), I came back as the joint compound was setting up, misted it with water, and smoothed it with my trowel.
I didn’t go crazy on patching compound on the mantel, but I did fill in the screw holes and some of the large dents at the bottom on each side. I love this 3M Patch Plus stuff for filling little stuff, by the way—seriously the best patching compound I’ve used, PLUS it dries really fast. Technology!
I used the little sander attachment for the Multi-Max to quickly smooth down the patches. I wasn’t sure I’d like this any better than my mouse sander, but it’s great. It has no trouble being up against a corner, and it’s powerful and precise and awesome. The Multi-Max comes with a ton of different grit sanding pads, too.
AND SO. A little caulk, primer, and paint. Bungee, what say you?
This dog never looks impressed. He kind of has RBF. Tell me I’m wrong.
This wall is awkward for furniture (that bedside table is 2′ wide, for reference) and big art felt kind of imposing, but I think the mantel really feels nice. It also makes the room feel more appropriately formal, which as the master bedroom it ought to be! Much like when I pulled this same nonsense one floor down in the living room, I feel like it’s given the room some missing sense of order.
In a house where so much stuff is original, I really love these little fantasy kinds of projects. Is it historically accurate? No, not really, I don’t think, but I think it could probably fool me if I didn’t know better, and that’s what’s fun about it! When you’re missing original charm, playing pretend is A-OK in my book.
I thought it would be cool to throw a huge mirror up there, but I think this one is too huge. I think it feels better in real life than it looks in photos, maybe. Once in a while I get a burst of weird energy and move all the stuff on my walls around, so…eh. I’ll live with it for a bit. That thing is super heavy.
Thank goodness this struggling plant has a place to live now. Bungee thought it would be fun to destroy as a puppy and it’s been fighting for its life ever since. I got the pot at an estate sale a couple of weeks ago. The little blob (pear?) came by chance in a box lot I bid on at an auction and I kinda dig it. The little bust is of my dog Linus, and was made by a client shortly after he passed away. I love it.
I’m so happy this project is done and the parts to do it are no longer floating around the house! Of course now the bedroom feels different (bigger! fancier!) and I like the direction it’s going. I’d love to replace the bed with something a bit heavier and higher off the floor, and someday I’ll find the perfect side tables, and rug, and lighting situation, and learn how to arrange my bed linens Blogger Style, and then all my problems will be solved.
Midway through that renovation, it struck me that just maybe my recent fixation with Antarctica was due in part to…needing a vacation? Because that was the last one I went on? And it was the most amazing one but also now it’s been over a year and I am so tired? Of working? All the time?
The day after I took photos of the finished laundry room, I had to be back at another job site. It was a freelance job that began months after it was planned to, then took way too long and got difficult for really frustrating reasons both typical and novel to me, and I ended up having to spend an inordinate amount of time at the end to make sure very basic things got completed to some reasonable standard, and…holy cow. I might have been tired before, but the laundry room was fun and exciting and personal, which is motivating. This was just…frustration. Non-stop, pervasive frustration until it was done and inspected and a Certificate of Occupancy was in hand.
SO. Got through that. Took a weekend. Cleaned the house. Weekend felt good. Wanted more weekend. Can weekend also be…week? I want to do that. Let me do that right now. All days are Saturday until it is Saturday again for real. I will call it Weekend Week. Not Sunday. That is for the Lord, Heathen!
I have not planned Weekend Week. And can’t actually leave due to prior engagements. Among those prior engagements is my new practice, which is going to the gym. Your eyes do not deceive: I joined a gym. Why did I do this? My friend wanted to. I wanted to want to, but did not have the energy to actually want to, but also knew I was unlikely to do it alone because, historically, I have not done it alone. So I decided to do it with him. More specifically we joined a 6-Week Challenge at the gym, which involves exercising at the gym 4 mornings a week for 6 weeks while also eating stuff that people who spend a lot of time at the gym eat. Consequently I have been to the gym TWENTY-TWO TIMES and eaten at least 7,000 eggs in the last 5 weeks. I feel and look mediocre but certainly not more so than before, so I’d say it’s a resounding success.
Now we’re all caught up. Weekend Week. The name of the game is self-care. I will gym. I will make food to put in my face hole. I will watch the TV. I will walk the dogs. I will sit in the moment and be still in my body and visualize my goals and name my feelings and also feel my names. I will relax. There will be peace, for fuck’s sake.
Only I’m not super good at finding peace and immediately got antsy and renovated my closet instead. You knew it was coming because it’s the title of the blog post. Let’s talk about it.
My bedroom has its very own closet. DID YOU KNOW THAT? If you did, thank you for paying attention. If you didn’t, also thank you for not paying too much attention.
It looked like the above two photos. I did you the courtesy of not cleaning up before I took them, because 9 years of blogging has taught me that people are comforted by knowing we all have closets of squalor. If your closets are perfect and nice, please leave now; I’ve nothing to offer you.
So. Some parts of the closet were here when I bought the house and some I actually did myself, as in, actual effort has already gone into this space. Not a tremendous amount, but some. There was a clothing rod and a couple of shelves, so I added that long shelf across the top and the narrow vertical shelving to hold…shoes? I’m not sure. It seemed practical. I guess it was more practical than no shelves. All the wood was scrap from other projects. ALSO I remember pulling up a sheet of linoleum (when old linoleum isn’t glued down, it feels like a real gift from the past), but I never took pictures evidently. That exposed the paint-splattered but otherwise super well-preserved and unsealed subfloor. Pretty!
Sometime later, while up in the attic running the dryer vent for the new laundry room, I stepped through the ceiling of the closet. Sometimes you just have to laugh, right? Oopsie. I cleaned up what I could, threw up a few plaster buttons around the gaping hole, and put up a drywall scrap cut to the rough (very rough) size and shape of the hole. Then I ignored it for a long time.
Anyway, these little “fixes” were always intended to be temporary until I could really address the closet. What qualifies as temporary? Can you still call it temporary if it took 5 years to circle back to? I don’t have all the answers. But that’s been so much of the reality of renovating the interior of this house: get a room to a place of being useable and clean-ish and able to hold furniture, combine stuff I already own in a way that feels inoffensive, move on to the next important thing, and plan to circle back someday and really do it up. To be honest, it’s kind of a deflating strategy because nothing ever feels done, but it’s also practical for my time and budgetary limitations. I’m not really sure how else I’d go about things. Someday, I will have something other than paper shades on half my windows. Someday, I will buy a nice sofa. But today? Stop that jibber-jabber. Today I need to be saving for kitchen cabinets and countertops and hardwood flooring and sinks and faucets and oh shit the expansion tank on the boiler needs to be replaced and the cornices are rotting and damnit, I own a whole other house with no walls.
BACK TO THE SUBJECT AT HAND. The closet is neither tiny (like typical old house closets, if they exist at all!) nor large, but it definitely wasn’t pulling its weight storage-wise. Notice how it only contains hanging clothes and shoes and random crap! I used to have a dresser in my bedroom, but then I swapped that for that crazy big Eastlake armoire and moved the dresser into the little nursery room. So half my clothes were hanging in the closet and half were folded in the other room, which I found weirdly very annoying. Also, let’s just admit it: old dressers with really big drawers really suck when you have to access the contents multiple times a day. Opening the drawers is a two-hand job, the glass knobs are fairly fragile (one broke off in my hand!), and the inside of the drawers always felt disorganized even though they were SUPER organized. So my major goal was to get ALL the clothes to fit comfortably and easily into this closet. In turn, I can get that dresser out of the nursery room, which is one step closer to actually clearing out and renovating that little room. Which I kind of don’t even know what to do with, but that’s a different post.
By the way, this is a very small space with no windows which makes it super difficult to photograph. I did my best. I made this handy and detailed illustration with dimensions to help you.
A little tricky, right? Your first reaction may be that the in-swing door is a problem. And it kind of is. But it’s also original to the house, and changing the swing would have created a very awkward door situation in the bedroom, and removing it was not something I was willing to entertain. Hanging clothes typically take up about 24″ of space back to front, so you can’t really just hang a rod across the whole closet because the clothes hanging toward the end would interfere with the door. You could just use the short wall for all the main storage (essentially how it was in the “befores”), but it’s less than 4′ and that felt like an ineffective use of space since there’s 5.5′ on the other wall.
And I’m trying to fit drawers in here! If the closet were just a littttttttle bit bigger, I probably would have just tried to find a dresser and put that in. But it would have had to be a super weird size dresser to fit in this closet without taking up too much depth or obstructing the door which, again, I am too much of a pain in the ass to just remove.
FINALLY IT HIT ME. THE ANSWER THAT HAS SO OFTEN HIT ME IN THE COURSE OF MY BLOGGER LIFE.
IKEA. KITCHEN. CABINETS. I am positive I have bought and assembled more IKEA kitchen cabinets to use outside of kitchens than in them. They’re just so damn versatile, and simple, and easy, and the quality is great—for instance, the drawer glides on an IKEA dresser are usually kind of crap, but the kitchen drawers have high-quality hardware and glide like BUTTER. And soft close. No brag.
AND! IKEA makes their SEKTION cabinets in two depths—24″ for base cabinets, and 15″ for uppers. They must have gotten the hint that a lot of people were installing upper cabinets as lower cabinets in tight-space situations, so they started making the drawers for the 15″ depth too. So smart. God bless you, IKEA. 24″ would have been too deep, but the 15″ depth is perfecttttt for this small space.
I drew this richly detail sketch in bed one night, and was not willing to redo it for this post:
Thank you, I was classically trained as you can plainly see by my hangers.
So. Let’s begin.
Remember how there was that room built off the side of my house? And it was super far gone? And I tore it down? So. Above a dropped acoustic tile ceiling in there was that nice 4″ beadboard ceiling. Even though it was in rough shape—it’s thin stuff to begin with, like less than 1/2″, and water damage from the leaking roof had created some rot and some cupping—I tried to get it all down intact for reuse elsewhere. Where is elsewhere? No idea at the time. This was 3 years ago. But it’s pretty and old and so I cut out the rotted parts and jagged ends where they broke and squirreled it away.
Side note: See how the siding turns from yellow to blue and so does the ceiling? That’s because there was a wall there before this photo was taken! My dining room had 3 closets when I bought the house, but only one was original. 3!
I thought using it on the ceiling would be a fast and simple way of covering up the hole! I’d so much rather do a little carpentry than a bunch of dusty skim-coating work, particularly since I sleep 10 feet away. Even though the rest of the ceiling was in pretty good shape, I added plaster washers along the joists, since the beadboard should’t be holding up falling plaster down the road. Then I went ahead and face-nailed the boards (I found that I had to shave off the tongues and just butt the boards together) right to the ceiling with finish nails. Because it runs perpendicular to the joists, most of it’s just being held up by the lath. It’s so lightweight, it’s fine.
I did not go nuts over fixing the walls. There were a bunch of holes from all the weird shelving stuff, and I just patched everything with a lot of 3M Patch Plus and called the rest character. A crack is only a problem when you think of it as one.
I love the old hanging rail, so obviously that stayed. I did remove the painted hooks to let them simmer in the crock pot while I worked.
The floor! It had some rough spots and paint on it, so I shut myself in there with a shopvac and my orbital sander, donned a respirator, and did the damn thing. Then I ran to the shower very quickly and shut the door behind me to let the dust settle. The bedroom stayed surprisingly clean throughout this ordeal! The hallway was crazy town though. It’s amazing how even small projects end up requiring, like, ALL the tools and supplies.
I vacuumed really well and spent a bunch of time getting old dust and hair and crap out of the joints, since poly will pretty much glue that stuff down in there for life. I used some leftover Bona NaturalSeal, which has some white pigment in it to balance out the ambering that even water-based poly will do to raw wood.
A few years ago when I was working on the bedroom, I got a nice glimpse of the original pine subfloor, which is so pretty! It was interesting to see the original wax(?) finish—very light and neutral. The yellow pine over top was probably added in the 1930s. I wanted to get something like that original wax finish, so I actually added a little white paint to the sealer just to see what would happen. Low stakes!
I went to IKEA and got my cabinets. The one on the left is 24″ wide and the one on the right is 30″ wide. The drawer fronts are the VEDDINGE, which is the second-cheapest option and my old faithful. I’m fine with it looking new and mod and efficient. I love these cabinets so much it’s appalling. Living in an old house, sometimes you really appreciate brand new things that are easy and just work and aren’t some huge massive undertaking, and the glide and soft close on these drawers practically makes me weep.
I always think of IKEA kitchen cabinets as really inexpensive, and they are—relative to most other kitchen cabinets. And especially if you just need shelves inside and doors. But those drawers ADD UP. These two cabinets with their 9 drawers were $650. So. Just know that. I definitely did not actually go through the effort of pricing them beforehand, so it was like 3x what I expected to spend. Oops! It’s OK. I love them so much and I bet this is exactly how Mariah Carey feels all the time and maybe it’s good for me to be in touch with that side of myself.
I built a little base out of scrap 1x that I took out during demo. So now that wood has gone from Olivebridge to my closet shelving to holding my cabinets up. Not bad!
I built a shoe tower thing. It’s pretty much the same process I used for the pantry cabinet build, except there’s no backing and I used iron-on veneer edging for exposed edges rather than a face-frame. It’s just a 4-sided box. Easy. I drilled out shelf pin holes with my Kreg jig. That thing is great.
Paint! I color-matched the original trim color using my nix mini sensor, and it spit out this kinda butterscotch color called Scrivener Gold from Benjamin Moore. It’s totally one of those sorta muddy old-fashioned colors I feel like every old house has or had somewhere, and I really love it! I used a satin finish, so it has a nice sheen that shows off the age of the wood but doesn’t give it that “HI, I AM RECLAIMED, LOOK AT ME!” kind of look.
For the walls I had a half can of White Dove in matte, which is what I painted most of my Brooklyn apartment! With plaster walls that have a lot of character like these, a warm white in a matte finish is always a safe bet. I think it makes all of that imperfection so beautiful, and I just wanted something clean and neutral since the clothes themselves are a lot of pattern and color. Because FASHION.
ANYWAY. Finishing touches here and there and everywhere and I HAVE SUCH A NICE CLOSET OMG. I really wish I could take better/wider pictures of it because I am so pleased and so smug.
Hello sleepy Bungee! He’s a very good boy. Which reminds me that another pupdate is probably in order!
But the closet. The closet! It fits all my clothes! It feels so organized and nice! I am so fancy!!
The plan really worked out well, I think. It’s a nice mix of old and new that you know I like, and it fits everything without feeling cramped or cluttered.
And all the original bits of the space got to stay, which I’m so happy about! I love the simple hook rail so much. The hooks had been moved around over the years, but it was pretty easy to tell where they were originally mounted—so seeing them all cleaned up and spaced like they were 150 years ago feels nice! Also yes I have been repeatedly informed that they look like little erect penises.
Man, this post has everything. Gaping holes. Cracks. Erect penises. Don’t @ me.
I sort of thought I’d always look at this ceiling and feel lazy for not fixing the original plaster, but I ended up preferring it! It just adds some richness and interest and texture. And, of course, I really love using defunct parts of the house to fix other parts of the house. Not only does it legitimize my hoarding but it’s also free and unique! I can’t just go out and buy beadboard like this, and I’m so glad it’s in my closet and not in a landfill.
The little light fixture is probably from the 30s, and used to be above the sink in the upstairs kitchen! I moved it to the spot above the sink in the first floor kitchen during that initial remodel, and now it’s here. It’s a cutie. I’m glad I had the good sense to have the electrician put a light in this closet during a really early round of work years ago. It’s an exciting day when you get to finally replace the keyless utility light with a real fixture!
CAN WE TALK ABOUT MY DRAWERS. I went from 4 super big awkward heavy drawers to 9 perfect new gliding drawers and it is magic. It feels so…adult? All I know is, getting dressed and putting away laundry are pleasant activities now.
Did a very very tiny Japanese lady re-teach you how to fold all your clothes? Did you roll your eyes at the mere suggestion and then dip your toe in and then move ahead full-force and never look back? I did. Marie Kondo, you’re nuts and I love you so much and you really were right about the folding thing.
Knowing that the interiors of my drawers are tidy is pretty much the only thing that makes me feel like I have my shit together. Don’t take this away from me.
The drawer pulls are kind of special to me! They came off this big mid-century-ish shelving unit thing that I grew up with. It held toys and VHS tapes and art supplies and basically everything I cared about as a kid. My parents sold it with the house when they moved several years ago, and EVIDENTLY I decided the new owners could find their own damn knobs and took those suckers with me. Don’t leave me unsupervised is the lesson here.
I ain’t sorry.
The floor is so nice now! I think I have a little rug that would look cute in here, but for now I’m just enjoying the refinished wood.
For the top of the dresser, I used birch plywood, iron-on veneer edge banding, some franken-stain from the basement and a couple coats of amber shellac. I love shellac. Did you know it comes from beetle butts? Did you know it’s also the coating on jelly beans and lots of other food products? I’m a wealth of information.
The shoe shelves feel real fancy. I used scrap plywood and face-nailed 1.25″ pieces of scrap red oak to the fronts to beef them up a little. I painted them the trim color because white sounded like something I’d regret down the line.
A while ago I ordered a few of these little wastebaskets, and I’ve been super happy with them! I like having a little trashcan in most rooms, and these are cute and well-made, and I think look a little nicer than metal or plastic.
I’m still getting used to not having the laundry baskets in here. I have never developed good habits around this…yesterday’s clothing can usually be found on my bathroom floor or on the floor next to my bed. I’m not sure what’s so hard about putting it directly into a receptacle, but I tend not to. I bet I could find a nice vintage hamper that would fit nicely in here, though, or use some of the hooks for a hamper solution like Kim and Scott have. Feeling it out.
While I had the supplies out, I finally got around to staining and sealing the shelves for the big armoire! Remember that little project? Well. Told ya I’d get to it.
As ridiculous as it might sound, I think the closet is pretty much now the ONLY space in the house that just feels…finished. It doesn’t need a Phase II renovation/decoration and that’s a nice feeling. I’m excited for more spaces to start to feel like that! I think a big key to making that happen is really trying to focus on storage—I actually don’t think I have THAT much stuff, but I do have a lot of stop-gap, ineffective storage solutions that make it feel like I do. I started 2019 with building the pantry cabinets, and now this closet…so I think that’s the theme of the year! Which works out nicely because bluestone cottage is the main priority, so I need my own house projects to be relatively small.
Speaking of relatively small projects, I really want to deal with this wall now! It appears to have originally had a mantel (this is the wall directly above the living room wall where I installed a mantel to replace another missing one!), and I’d really like to put one back. I think I’ve scrounged together the majority of the supplies I need—including the antique mantel!—over the last couple of years and now I’m all excited to make it happen. I’ve never felt like the bedroom is really working—the rug isn’t the right size, I kind of hate the bed, somehow I don’t even like the bubble lamp in here—so maybe getting that project done will help unstick my brain a little.
Oh also! I thought it might be fun to document this closet makeover on my Instagram stories as it was all happening! Consequently I took a lot more process videos than photos. I saved the more relevant parts to highlights, so you can watch it unfold in about 20 minutes if that sounds fun for you. And hey, give me a follow while you’re there! It’s a nice way to keep up between blog posts and I sure would appreciate it. You can find me at @DanielKanter!
This post is a paid partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!
WELL BOY OH BOY, it’s been a busy month of work on the Bluestone Cottage basement renovation, and now I have stuff to show you! The very first finished space in this house! Which may have been the most challenging one, although I may eat those words later, and certainly the most grim “before” I’ve ever encountered. If you haven’t checked out the earlier posts about resurfacing the concrete floor and adding insulation and finishes, go read those! We’ve got a lot of ground to get through in this one!
SHALL WE?! Let’s go.
Even though this old basement access is now covered over in favor of new wooden steps stacked under the main staircase, let’s just think wayyyyyyy back for a moment to when I first walked through this house and located the basement access. I walked down with just my iPhone flashlight, and then NOPE’D my butt right out of there. It was dark, dank, smelly, cramped, and littered with trash. And carpeting!! The kind of space where you might come upon a corpse and kinda feel like you asked for it.
Later on, once I got some lights set up down there, I took a total of two photos. They are above. I do this to myself sometimes: if I don’t really foresee something undergoing a big transformation, I neglect to take nearly enough “before” pictures and then I’m grumpy about it later. But anyway: can’t you just see a washer and dryer tucked into that little nook? No?
How about now?
NOT TOO SHABBY, AM I RIGHT?! I kind of surprised myself in here: I started work on this a month ago without any real design plan, and then inspiration struck hard in the form of Port Lockroy, a 1940s British research station on Antarctica. I tried to really let that space guide me with more than just a color scheme—the modesty, the simplicity and handmade quality of it were just as informative! I tend to overcomplicate things for myself sometimes, so I found myself mulling a lot over how to deal with certain things efficiently and frugally and without a lot of fuss. Some of those solutions ended up being my favorite things in the room!
This is shortly after I started work about a month ago, after I spent a few days cleaning up! Edwin and I had previously framed the walls, and electric and plumbing rough-ins had to be completed before any of this finish work could take place. The propane tank, by the way, is connected to this Craftsman portable propane heater—I have no idea how I lived for so long without one of these for winter projects.
S’cute right? I really wanted the space to feel super casual and practical because it’s a basement! In an old house! Practical is its entire job! So it’s not precious—throw up a hook wherever you need it, add a shelf, staple a cable, cut a hole and patch it with something else, provided you paint it—it’s all good.
Bear in mind that almost every single thing in this space is brand new and from Lowe’s!, but I still wanted it to feel like a vintage space. Finishing it like the rest of the house would have felt too formal and unnatural, though, so I tried to do things throughout to get that nice fresh WWII vibe all the kids are talking about (if I say it, does that make it true?). I basically asked myself “what would grandpa do?” a lot. Not either of my actual grandpas—to be honest, I have no idea how they would have finished a basement in 1945—more like some generic old guy in my brain who putters around. He’s always been old and he doesn’t have time for your shenanigans. Grandpa paints right over the outlets and switches and utilities, so I DID TOO. Grandpa ain’t about that painter’s tape life either. It felt so naughty and liberating. But like, I think it works.
Behind that door is the old basement access. Aside from the floor, I haven’t really dealt with that space yet, but it’ll house the boiler and some additional storage. I love that there’s a separate space for that! Because the ceiling height is so low (about 6-6’4″ depending on where you’re standing), it’s also really nice to have all the plumbing tucked into the ceiling so it could be finished without exposed Pex. Copper pipe can look great but Pex isn’t as nice to look at.
Putting all the hooks and hangers and tools on the pegboard was so much funnnnnn. I’ve never actually had a pegboard, and now I want one for myself! I kind of want this whole room for myself, but that’s a different story.
OK, now that we’ve kind of given it the once-over, let’s break it down!
Last time, we discussed the Azek composite baseboards, Dow Froth-Pak spray foam insulation, and 1/4″ thick beadboard plywood that I used for the walls. As a precaution, I painted the backside of the plywood with Rust-Oleum’s Mold Killing Primer. I attached the panels to the studs with 1 1/4″ exterior screws, and strips of scrap wood cover all the seams! The intention here is that should parts of a wall/ceiling ever need to be removed for any reason (like to access a pipe or a cable or something), one could do so fairly easily by just prying off the seam trim and locating the screw heads, and everything could likely be reused for the repair.
Since I ripped the panel widths down for the walls, I had some large off-cuts to use on the ceiling! The joists are all over the place and the thin plywood is definitely wavy as a result, but it’s ok! It looked so bad before I put up the seams to cover the strips and painted it, but now it’s great. The strips on the seams, by the way, are just the same plywood ripped to 2″ and flipped over to the smooth side. The “chair rail” piece is scraps of that same Azek composite board I used for the baseboard, ripped down to 2″ and only 1/2″ thick. I made a LOT of sawdust during this project, but didn’t buy any lumber (composite or real!) aside from 15 sheets of the plywood.
Itty bitty window! I’m pretty sure it had only been painted when it was new and had never been reglazed—which left it in probably the most restorable condition of any window in the house!
The old hardware didn’t work anymore with the new framing/trim, so I had to improvise a little but it works!
I couldn’t dress up this room without a few little nods to my Antarctic inspiration. That little print is by Charley Harper—I’ve been carrying around a stack of prints like this that I ripped out of a day planner like a decade ago.
This vintage print is one of the only things left in my own house from a previous owner, and I thought it’d be cute just hanging there tacked to the wall all casual. I used my super special supply of vintage carpet tacks for the occasion.
The door to the boiler room actually came out of my own house, too! It was a 1930s closet addition and the style isn’t appropriate for my house, but it’s perfect for this space! And it was already so small that I only had to cut about an inch off the bottom to make it work. Like it was meant to be!
So the grandpa part of me wanted to paint the door hardware right along with the door, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Ha! So I restored it instead. The backplate was original to this door, but the knob itself came from this house (the original knob is glass—I may use it upstairs?). I like when I can use excess from my house in other projects—it makes them all feel linked in a weird way.
Can we just take a hard right for a second and talk about HOW GLORIOUS IS THIS PAINT?! Now, you guys know me by now, right? I tend to be a black-white-neutral kinda guy when it comes to paint. I’m not typically using two really strong greens in combination, plus a color that resembles warm mayonnaise. BUT I LOVE IT. I love it so much that I wish we could all hang out down here in person, because the colors don’t translate precisely into photos shot in artificial light on an iPhone, but I did my best. It feels cheery and clean and vintage and modern and British and nautical and like a morgue all at the same time. The morgue part, especially, pleases me greatly.
Over time I’ve learned to appreciate sheens as much as colors—how glossy or matte a paint is can be a total game-changer! The Valspar High Gloss Enamel paint is fantastic to work with—thick, great coverage, and excellent self-leveling ability. The high gloss feels SO nice down here—it really gives off a vintage oil-based paint vibe, but with all the convenience and relative environmental friendliness and accelerated dry time of modern latex paint. Every surface feels scrubbable and smooth, and the sheen reflects a lot of light and makes the whole space just feel fresh. Love.
The actual painting was a bit labor-intensive, but totally worth it. I ended up finding that rolling with a regular nap 9″ roller and back-brushing everything with a 3″ angled brush was a good method for getting thorough coverage—all those grooves in the beaded ply suck up a lot of paint! You want to use kind of a heavy hand to get that thick oil-based paint look, you know? I did a minimum of two coats and three in some areas, and it would just look better and better with more coats. That plywood goes from looking a little hokey and cheap to downright luxurious with the right paint and caulk.
By the way, I’m a huge fan of these Whizz Microlon roller covers. They don’t shed like other roller covers do, and they wash really well—I threw some in my washing machine after giving them a good rinse, and they came out looking and feeling brand new! They’re awesome.
The upper walls and ceiling are Valspar’s “Ginger Sugar,” the minty color is called “Kelp,” and the dark green accent is “Palace Green.” For maybe the first time ever, I got three sample colors and ended up using exactly those three sample colors!
By the way—it took me a while to figure out how exactly to deal with these stairs. They were built speedily but not well, which ended up making a bunch of extra work for me later to reinforce all the treads and figure out how to finish them in a way that felt decent-looking and easy to clean. On the upside, I’m pretty sure I’ve figured it out. On the downside, I haven’t actually done it yet. But the stringer looks not bad for nailing some literal trash to it and painting it green! Let’s also not forget that I still have to renovate the entire house, so those basement stairs might take a beating before all is said and done—it might be better to just wait.
ANYWAY. Let’s discuss this region of the room. Pegboard? Love it. I just used a regular roller to paint it (be careful with brushing—paint can pool in the holes and drip out as it dries). It’s furred out 1″ from the studs behind, which creates the space for the pegs to be inserted into place. I started with this large assortment of pegboard accessories by Blue Hawkand then purchased a few extra bits like those little black mesh baskets and little yellow containers. I think organizing the pegboard is my new favorite game.
The big wooden trunk is an antique I picked up a while ago that I never especially had a space for in my house, but it adds a lot of charm here! It’s currently empty, but it could store a million different things. At my house it held a sewing machine and a bunch of fabric and associated supplies, but I decided those things would feel more at home spread across my dining room table because I needed to poach that trunk for my big boy art project.
The hanging clothes dryer is from one of my favorite stores in Brooklyn (now closed, like everything else I used to like in Brooklyn), and is no longer in production, so I cannot help you there. It hung in my first laundry room in my own house, and I would have reused it in my second one but there just wasn’t a good spot for it. I know this arrangement looks a little funny, but it’s hung far enough from the pegboard that I don’t think it’s an issue.
Speaking of drying! I’m not yet in a position to report back on the performance of the Bosch 500-series washer and matching electric ventless dryer I got for this space (read more about that decision-making here!) because they aren’t tottttalllllly hooked up yet, but I still feel good about them! You guys gave me a lot of good feedback on ventless dryers—which are definitely not all created equal—including how to optimize performance and what to reasonably expect. Some of you even have experience with these very models, which was encouraging! So anyway, I’m hoping that between the actual dryer, the hanging dryer, and the clothesline, there are enough ways to dry stuff down here.
OH YEAH GIRL, THERE’S A RETRACTABLE CLOTHESLINE. Did you think this was a JOKE? It stretches from one side of the room to the other and it took about 5 minutes to put up but somehow feels like huge fancy luxury and height of modern convenience.
My machine nook ended up being weirdly challenging! The hookups are way up by the ceiling (remember, really low ceilings), and I hate looking at that stuff but it needs to be easily accessible. I also wanted a big surface on top to fold or sort or put down a towel and iron or whatever, and a place to throw stuff away, while still leaving space around the machines (evidently crowding the dryer can really affect its performance), and then there’s that big 3″ waste line above and other plumbing just cutting across all ugly like that.
For the work surface, I mounted old 2×4 scraps as cleats to the side walls and back (I ended up cutting off the ends of that back piece later for the hoses and cords to fit up through), being sure to hit the studs. Then I used this Baltic Birch butcherblock counter, which was almost the perfect size! A few measurements and a pass with the circular saw later, I had a SUPER nice, solid worktop! To finish it, I used this Watco butcher block oil and finish, which is excellent stuff—it doesn’t need to be refreshed nearly as often as mineral oil does.
The overhead waste line situation was a little more iffy. I thought originally that I’d just build out a little soffit and box it in like a regular person, but after putting up a small section just to get a sense of how it would look and feel, I couldn’t! It looked AWFUL and it was a real head-banger—worse than the pipe alone since it protruded out further and lower. Just so awkward and terrible. I moved on to other stuff until I could think of a better solution. What would grandpa do?
Well, I’m not sure what grandpa would do but I know what I did which was so easy and I’m a little too smug about. I attached the framing lumber—one nailer up on the ceiling and one below on the wall. Obviously the framing is level and the pipe is pitched down, so I wanted to keep my “soffit” as high as possible while still maintaining a level line.
One occasionally advantageous quality of the Azek composite boards is that they’re SUPER bendy. After ripping 3/4″ thick boards down to 1/2″ thick for the chair rail, I had a lot of 1/8″ thick off-cuts that can bend almost in half before breaking. A-ha! I attached strips like this in several places along the length of the soffit to create a super-simple frame/shape.
Then, I attached 14″ flashing to the framing along the ceiling, and pulled it over my rounded composite board skeleton so it’d maintain a nice curve! I went into Lowe’s for aluminum flashing but opted for this vinyl flashing instead, since I thought it would be more forgiving as I inevitably bent and creased it by accident during install. This definitely would have been better as a two person job but I managed.
Anyway—a little caulk and paint and now it’s one of my favorite things in the room! It definitely looks like painted sheet metal, not vinyl flashing, and I feel like it’s one of those things your brain just kind of accepts as serving some function and moves on without thinking about more. I felt really crafty with that one, you guys.
For the whole hook-up situation, I tried not to overthink it (there were whole schemes with shelves and cabinets with false backs and other nonsense) and just made myself a little modesty skirt! And I really like it! I used a regular canvas drop cloth from Lowe’s, sewed a couple straight lines and boom, curtain! I hung it off of a metal clothing rod cut to size, which is easy to remove when the curtain needs to be washed. I like that there’s a lot of space to stash stuff behind it, too! There are a couple enamel trays back there to corral bottles of cleaners and stuff.
OK, should we talk about that huge work bench?! I love it and I’m jealous of it! It’s a full 8′ long by 2′ deep, which is such a wonderful and huge work surface to have anywhere in this little house! If I were doing this room for myself I’d probably want more of a proper tool bench with lots of drawers, but this feels more versatile if you just wanted it for general storage.
I started with a classic Edsal shelving unit, but modified it a little. I cut about 2″ off the vertical supports to lower the whole thing—especially with adding the butcherblock top, it was just too high for the space. Before assembly, I laid out all the pieces and coated them with this Krylon bonding primer spray paint, which dries quickly and leaves a nice matte finish to accept the topcoat!
Then I broke out my little Wagner spray gun (I love that thing for little projects like this!) and painted the parts to match the walls, of course!
I really like how it turned out! I’m sure the paint will chip here and there over time with use, but I feel like that’ll make it better in this case. I had to do a little…engineering to get the really nice baltic butcherblock top to work (not as easy as my plan of just plopping it on there), so there’s some added wood support at the ends to hold the top up and L-brackets to keep it in place. I also cut 1/2″ birch plywood for the shelves and layered it on top of the particleboard shelves that come with these units, which will hopefully keep the shelves from bowing and warping over time. I have these set up as shelving in my basement, and the particleboard is, unfortunately, a bendy mess after a few years.
By the way, I picked up an assortment of these Hefty storage containers to keep things more organized (the cottage has its own painting bin! how quaint!), and they’re great for this kind of thing! Most of the storage containers in my own basement are flimsy and tend to break a lot, but these seem really sturdy and up to the task of dealing with tools and heavy odd-shaped stuff. It’s nice to be able to just pull out a bin of everything you need (or at least everything you have, so you know what you need!) for a specific task.
Oh right—finally, the floor! It’s been a journey with this floor, which started with a cleaning marathon, followed by patching, priming, pouring Sakrete Self-Leveling Resurfacer, having to stop, priming again, and pouring more self-leveling resurfacer, tinted this time. Read that whole process here! I neither loved nor hated the final color of the concrete (I should have made myself some samples before mixing and pouring 700 pounds of concrete—my bad), but knew it would darken with a sealer and I wasn’t sure how it would play once the rest of the space was coming together.
Turns out—not into it! It wasn’t horrible but not really what I wanted. I spent about an hour sanding it with an orbital sander connected to my shopvac with 40 grit paper, which took off any paint drips, smoothed and buffed it out a little, and kind of softened the splatter-y stuff I did at the end of my concrete pour.
OK, so: people paint concrete. People stain concrete. People seal concrete. People epoxy concrete, and resurface concrete, and lay other flooring on top of concrete, and stencil it, and pour acid all over it. Within all of these categories of Things People Do to Concrete, we have subcategories. Finally we have products, and reviews for those products, and limitations of those products like the surface temperature and how long the concrete has cured, and these things are complicated by the fact that this has all been done in sub-optimal too-cold conditions in spite of my best efforts and I don’t know if any of it is a good idea. I tossed around my options for…weeks. My primary concern was that I’d do something that would wind up peeling, and then I’d hate myself forever? I’m not sure why this floor felt so high stakes.
While sanding the floor, I realized that my light, quick sanding wasn’t all that quick! The paint drips proved a lot harder to get out than I thought they’d be when I was cavalierly just painting without drop cloths, which I did because I knew I wanted to sand the floor down a little anyway, and I wanted to see the colors together.
Sometimes in situations like this, I’ll come up with a solution and somehow convince myself it’s the best one and I can’t really justify it later but it worked out so who cares? This is that. I bought a quart of dark brown latex paint. I thinned it to a ratio of about 4 parts water to 1 part paint. Then, because it was sitting there, I grabbed some of the powdered orange concrete tint and threw that in there too, because why not. Then I mixed it all up in a 5 gallon bucket.
I cut in around the room with a brush and then wiped up any excess, which was very little. That was the point! If it really soaks into the concrete instead of sitting on top of it…I mean, that’s logically what you want, right?
Anyway. I rolled out about 4’x4′ sections, and then buffed out the excess with a towel. I kept working that way across the floor, blending edges. What was kind of cool was that the powdered concrete tint didn’t really incorporate into the paint-water mix, so some spots got more pigment than others and I could blend those areas out to create some nice variation.
I don’t know, I’m into it.
The next day when the “stain” was totally dry, I added one coat of this Valspar Protective Sealer in the “wet look” (there’s also a “natural look,” which really is invisible when it’s dry). This deepens the color and dries with a glossy sheen—which I like in an instance like this, where it’s still a concrete floor but you want to be able to mop it, ya know? It soaks in really nicely—the reviews for this stuff are a mixed bag, but I’ve used it several times now for different things (brick, natural stone, now concrete) and it’s been great every time and very forgiving. Ideally I would have done at least one additional coat, but I was antsy to put this floor project to bed and it looked good with one, so I figured I could always add another later on down the line.
SO. ANYWAY. WHAT ELSE. I’ve reached a point where I think I have a mirror for any occasion? This one isn’t as old as I usually like ’em, but it’s so sweet for this house. Evidently I bought it at an auction, and since I don’t remember doing so, that means it was very very cheap. Unless I bought it at a yard sale from somebody who bought it at an auction and just left the lot sticker on. This is not important. I’m not worried about it, you’re worried about it!
That vintage ball lamp has been with me for years! I threw a bunch of these little brass Gatehouse coat hooks around the room, just because. Hooks are so handy. Never enough hooks. And I feel like these $3 basic hooks are perfect for this kind of space. I wish a little bit I’d hung them earlier so I could have painted over them—you know that’s what grandpa would have done!
That plaid throw laid SO VERY CASUALLY across the worktop is the official tartan of Antarctica, purchased at the continent’s only gift shop at Port Lockroy—the historic site that inspired this room for me. And I feel sort of stupid saying it, but creating this space felt on some level like being able to go back there, just a little bit. Or maybe access the feelings, somehow, of being there. Because “there” was a physical space, of course, but it was also a headspace that was more impactful than I think I realized at the time. It was a time of shifting perspective; of evaluating my life and thinking critically about such topics as priorities and goals and what are you doing?—a question often quickly followed by with that poor house down the street?
Welp. I did this with that poor house down the street. From the design to the sponsorship to the basement-ness of it, it’s all been outside of my comfort zone in a way that’s been challenging and stimulating and hard and highly productive. I’m not going to pretend every day down in that room was fun and exciting, but it also felt like exactly where I needed to be. Like I was keeping some important promises I’d made to myself down at the bottom of the globe. Following through. Getting it done. Doing the work. Sucking it up. Getting back on track—maybe not the same track, but a track. Tracks are nice.
So anyway. I love this room, and I love you guys for being on this weird funny ride with me—even when the waters get a little choppy. And a huge thank you to Lowe’s for allowing me to take this on! I know for certain that this room is vastly better for the opportunity to do this with them.