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How to Build Your Own Vintage-Style Cabinets

This post is a paid partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

Let’s build some cabinets for my pantry! If you read my last post about the progress in the back of the house, you know what we’re starting with. A plywood box in need of ALL the finishing work!

Here’s the thing. As much as I love to learn new things, I’d always been a little overwhelmed when reading about building cabinetry. I’ve looked into it. I bought one of those books on display by the Lowe’s Pro Services desk a few years ago. Exhibit A:

Once in a while I will look at this book and quickly become overwhelmed. Building cabinetry feels like that fine line where DIY becomes…woodworking. As in, I am a woodworker. I feel like a special kind of person gets to say that, and I am not that person.

Added to this, there are SO. MANY. WAYS. to build cabinets. Cabinets that look more or less the same can be constructed completely differently, from the materials to the way the joinery is accomplished to the construction of the shelves, doors, face frames, drawers, and on and on. Most of it looked really hard. Like, too hard. I have neither the tools, the skills, or the shop space for a lot of it. But then—enter the butler’s pantry, stage left. It really calls for custom, because the sizes are weird and I want it to look old. So I decided to brush off the fear and get to work devising a way to accomplish my cabinetry goals THE EASY WAY. Crawl before you can run, right? So I consulted various tutorials and how-to’s, and then combined them to form a process that felt achievable given my limitations.

OH RIGHT, I HAVE LIMITATIONS! For instance:

Number 1: I herniated a disc in my back, causing super intense sciatica! The physical pain of this is matched only by the psychological pain of knowing that my body has begun to degrade, and soon I will be dead. But more pertinent to this project is that lifting heavy things was a no-go, and I couldn’t be going up and down a million stairs. I had to keep it light, and my work within a limited amount of space.

Number 2: I have to transport plywood in a regular car, because I was too dumb to buy a pick-up.

Number 3: I don’t have a nice big shop space or an enormous variety of tools. I have some tools. But not all the tools.

So! You know what we’re dealing with. Let’s get into it.

STEP 1: PICK A STYLE!

I assault you with this bummer picture from my old Brooklyn kitchen because it conveniently contains both of the most common styles: full overlay and partial overlay. Full overlay is where the doors cover the entire face of the cabinet—it’s what we probably see (at least in blogworld?) most in new kitchens. These are simple to assemble because they don’t have a face-frame, work well with soft-close hinges, and maximize interior space. These cabinets often come flat-packed and ready to assemble.

Partial-overlay style is a bit different: there’s a face frame and a door that covers part of it, leaving part of it visible. The backside of the door is typically rabbeted to fit within the rough opening created by the face frame. These are usually pre-assembled, ready to install, and inexpensive.

The third is the inset style, which is has a face-frame and doors and drawer fronts that sit flush with it. This example comes courtesy of some friends of mine in Kingston restoring a Victorian—how gorgeous, right? This is the style we probably associate most with pre-war cabinetry, or all those fancy trendy British kitchens from the likes of DeVol and Plain English. Nowadays it’s almost entirely reserved for custom cabinetry, at least in the States, which of course is the most expensive option, requires the most precision to build, and of course is exactly what I wanted! We’ll be building this style.

STEP 2: MATERIALS SELECTION!

A mistake I often see in the DIY world is getting the wrong materials—for instance, using 3/4″ plywood intended for subfloors where a paint or stain-grade surface is desired. Don’t do that! Luckily, there are multiple engineered options that are appropriate, including cabinet-grade plywood, MDF, MDF-core plywood, and particleboard-core plywood, to name a few! I prefer a good cabinet-grade plywood myself (it’s strong, stable, holds screws well, and is pretty easy to work with), so I selected this 3/4″ maple plywood from Lowe’s for my cabinet boxes—or the carcases, or the carcasses, if you want to get fancy. I’ve gone on a deep dive into the correct spelling and it appears carcase and carcass are both correct. Carcass is certainly the most fun to say over and over again, so we’ll go with that.

STEP 3: CUT LIST! AND IN-STORE CUTTING.

Prior to going to the store, I spent some time figuring out all of the individual pieces I’d need for the sides, tops, bottoms, and shelves of each cabinet. Using that cut list, I diagrammed the rip cuts needed for each sheet of plywood so that a store associate could take care of the bigger cuts for me. If you’re working alone, it can be very difficult and/or unsafe to manhandle a full sheet of plywood onto a table saw (it’s better to cross-cut into a more manageable size with a circular saw first) so this made the individual pieces easier to lift with my decrepit back and my impractical car, and the whole job easier. All in all, I needed 7 sheets of plywood, which left most of a sheet leftover for mistakes, extra shelves, or my next plywood project!

I like to give the store associate measurements a bit larger than I actually need, as I’ll refine them to exact dimensions at home. Their cuts tend to be a little inconsistent, and you may end up with pretty eaten up veneer along the cuts if the store hasn’t changed the saw blade recently.

STEP 4: PRIME!

Once home, it’s a good idea to pre-prime your panels. You may only need to do one side if the exterior of your cabinets won’t be visible. I skipped this, but it could save some time later on.

STEP 5: CUT YOUR PIECES TO EXACT SIZE!

Once home, it’s easy to run the pieces one after the other through my table saw, producing the identical, consistent pieces I need for construction. Label all your pieces with a pencil. I’ve had this Porter Cable table saw from Lowe’s for a number of years, by the way, and it’s been great even with heavy use and abuse. It doesn’t appear to still be available, although this Rockwell one looks to be very similar.

No table saw? No worries! Two products you might want to know about: the Kreg Rip-Cut and the Kreg Accu-Cut, both available at Lowe’s. They’re very similar products, although the Accu-Cut is likely a better value because it handles cuts up to 48″ rather than the 24″ limitation of the Rip-Cut. All you need is a circular saw (a lot cheaper and easier to store than a table saw!), and you’re off! I love it because if I need to be mobile for a job, I don’t have to lug a table saw around. I have an older version of this Hitachi circular saw, although I’d probably go cordless if I were buying new!

STEP 5: DRILL YOUR SHELF PIN HOLES

If you want adjustable shelves in your finished cabinets (highly recommended!), now is a good time to drill out the holes for the shelf pins! This might sound difficult. I promise it is not with the Kreg Adjustable Shelf Pin Drilling Jig. This thing makes it SO simple—using a special drill bit that will stop at the exact right depth with perfect spacing. I used an off-cut piece of plywood as a guide to where I should start drilling my pin holes—you generally don’t need a shelf to adjust lower than about a foot above the bottom of the cabinet, but of course you can customize to your heart’s content. The jig is designed to work equally well whether you drill the holes before assembly, or want to retrofit them into an existing and/or already assembled cabinet (hello, easy upgrade to cabinets with fixed shelves!). It’s a great little tool.

STEP 6: ASSEMBLE THE CARCASSES! (also the title of my memoir)

Like I said—a million ways to do it, and I chose the easiest of the easy. One of the guys in the book said it was OK so I ran with it. While I could have built a few really big cabinets rather than 11 individual carcasses, I also needed to be able to work in the limited space of my kitchen and be able to move the carcasses around by myself. So. READY FOR THIS? It’s literally just making a box. You can make a box. I can make a box. Boxes for all! Even within this so-easy-I-hesitate-to-call-it-a-method, you have lots of options for exactly how to do it. I’ve seen a lot of people use the Kreg pocket screw system for this, but I think this way is easier and just as good if you don’t really need hidden fasteners.

First, apply wood glue to the edges of plywood where joints will be. Be generous!

Using a finish or brad nailer fitted with nails around 1.25″ (you could adjust up or down if you have something else around, just as long as it’s at least 1″), tack your joints together. Maybe 2-3 nails on each joint. These are JUST to keep things in place temporarily while you construct your box. A pneumatic gun (mine is no longer available, but this one is similar!) is extremely easy to use and control, and quite precise, so you can keep things aligned properly with one hand and fasten with the other. Use a carpenter’s square to check for squareness.

With the box assembled with glue and nails, use a 1/8″ drill bit to pre-drill a few holes along the joints, where you just nailed. Aim for every 8″ or so—you don’t have to be super exact.

Using 1.5″ (again, you can adjust a little up or down—I have an enormous container of miscellaneous screws I mined for this special occasion!) #8 coarse-thread drywall screws, drive screws into your pre-drilled holes. You should be able to feel them catch and they will easily sink below the outer layer of veneer. If they don’t, swap for a longer screw and try again. You may notice the joints tighten a bit, squeezing glue out of the joint.

I love drywall screws for this. They’re very strong, very cheap, and don’t tend to strip like a wood screw does. Coarse thread is the key!

Using a damp cloth, wipe away any excess glue. Remember to check again in a few minutes to see if glue is dripping or pooling anywhere.

STEP 7: DRY FIT!

With the carcasses assembled, I did a dry fit just to make sure I hadn’t really screwed anything up. All good!

If I may, for a second. My new chop saw. It’s awesome. I really needed a new chop saw, and then mine broke, and then I really needed a new chop saw, and I (Lowe’s) stepped it all the way up with the DeWalt 12-in sliding compound miter saw, and it is a DREAM. I’ve never had a chop saw this large or powerful, but I’ve worked with them, and making larger cuts makes a huge difference particularly on miters. Even at 90 degrees, my busted chop saw made a crosscut of less than 6″, and this one can cut 14″! This was so helpful for parts of the frames, shelves, face-frames—oh man I’m so glad to have it. Now it needs a shop space to live in! I do have to transport tools around kind of a lot, though, so while this is overkill for a small job, it’s also not so bad to close down and throw in the trunk, weighing in at 56 pounds. I’ll stop going on about my new toy now; thank you for indulging me. Let me know if you have questions.

STEP 8: ASSEMBLE THE BACKING!

At the top of each cabinet in the back, I used a piece of 1×3 cut to the interior width of the carcass, glued/nailed/screwed from the sides and the top, just like the rest of the box. This helps keep the box square, and also provides a really easy way to hang the cabinets by just screwing that piece to the wall/framing members. For extra long cabinets, you may want to add an identical piece to the bottom and perhaps the middle. This is a great situation to use wood from the scrap pile. Renovation consumes so many materials and produces so much waste as it is, and it saves so much money when I can just run to the garage instead of to the store!

I chose traditional 2″ beadboard backing for my cabinets—one of those good old Victorian standbys that are, luckily, still readily available and affordable! For an even more affordable, simple solution, beaded plywood and beaded MDF made to mimic this is available, too! Personally I like the imperfections of using the real deal, but hey—you got options! You could also totally use 1/4″ or 1/2″ plywood for the backing which would be even easier. I think 1/4″ is more typical, but an actual woodworker friend of mine told me that he uses 1/2″—and builds his carcasses almost exactly like this, which made me feel very validated.

This beadboard from Lowe’s is sold in packs of 6 (covering about 14 square feet per pack), in either 8′ lengths or 32″, which is so convenient if you’re doing wainscoting under a chair rail! The quality is so-so—there tend to be a lot of knots, and it would be a good idea to pre-prime every board, which I skipped due to lack of self-control. I’m fine with painting it but I wouldn’t really consider it stain-grade, personally.

With your boards cut to size, apply wood glue around all the back edges of the carcass and secure the beadboard. I used 3/4″ brad nails (I have an old Craftsman brad nailer probably a lot like this one I bought forever ago that’s still going strong!), and because you’re fastening to the back of the carcass you can just face-nail the boards at the top and bottom rather than nail through the tongue as usual. The beadboard is only 5/16″ thick and very lightweight, so you don’t need to go nuts—a pneumatic stapler would likely do the trick, too. Glue and some brads—it’s like a craft project! Funsies!

You may need to rip the last piece to size, of course. The beadboard goes super fast. It’s very satisfying.

STEP 9: MAKE THE BASES!

Modern standard base cabinets have a 30-31″ high frame and a 4-5″ base to make the total height 36″ when accounting for the thickness of the countertop. I’m building mine to a finished height of 34″, simply because I can.

To assemble the bases, framing lumber is inexpensive and provides a nice stable base. Because I’m basically drowning in salvaged lumber from the house, I took the opportunity to yank some old studs out of the basement and use those. To account for uneven widths, I ripped them each on the table saw down to 3.5″—the actual measurement of the 4 in 2×4. Obviously skip this if you’re all FANCY and have brand new 2x4s like some kind of ARISTOCRAT.

I assembled the bases in 3 sections to make them easy to maneuver, and then screwed them together and to the walls once in place, shimming to account for the out-of-level floor.  I used 3.5″ deck screws for the frames because I had them.

STEP 10: INSTALL THE BASE CABINETS

Set the carcasses on the bases and attach them to each other, using a set of Kreg clamps to keep the faces flush and caracasses level with each other. I used 1.25″ Kreg coarse-thread screws to fasten them together at the front and back of the frames—three in the front and three in the back. Keeping the screw toward the front of the frame will keep them out of sight once the face frame is installed.

I discovered that my room was hugely out of square, so I also had shim the backs of the base cabinets as I went along so that the finished floor space would be square. I have big tile ambitions that will require squareness. With shims in place, I fastened the cabinets to the wall through that top rail with drywall screws.

STEP 11: INSTALL THE UPPERS!

The uppers were physically more difficult to hang, but the plywood walls really helped here because I could shoot a few finish nails through the hanging rails to hold the cabinets in place briefly. The finish nails allow some flex, so it was easier to fasten the cabinets together with their frames nice and flush before screwing them securely into the wall.

So, see that big crazy gap at the top between the two tall cabinets? I MESSED UP. MY CABINET WAS NOT SQUARE. ALWAYS CHECK FOR SQUARE, DUMMY. Me, not you. You’re smart. You always check for square.

I decided to hang it anyway. The gap will get covered by the face frame, and I didn’t drill the shelf pin holes yet, so the shelves would still be level. I’m not necessarily endorsing it, but it’s the choice I made. These are the moments (some projects have a lot of these moments) where I like to claim wabi-sabi. Do you know about wabi-sabi? It’s Japanese. It has to do with the beauty of imperfection. Bloggers really liked to talk about it a few years ago. I say it jokingly to excuse my flaws. I think it’s endlessly funny; mostly it’s very annoying. But. I do it anyway.

Now we can move on and not speak of it again. Even at this early stage, I have to say—the room feels HUGE! It’s bigger than a Manhattan kitchen! It’s more cabinets than in my current kitchen! Tools like SketchUp are great and all, but they aren’t nearly as fun as the real thing.

Also, hi Mekko. Smooth photobomb.

STEP 12: ASSEMBLE THE FACE FRAMES

I have seen lots of old cabinets. I have seen a lot of varying face frame dimensions, which is sort of liberating, but you want to be mindful of keeping good proportions. In this case, I consulted the 1920s built-ins in the other room and landed on a really bulky face-frame. On the lowers, the verticals are 2.5″ wide and the top rail is 2″, and all the wood is a full inch thick, otherwise known as 5/4″ lumber (as opposed to 1x, which is actually 3/4″ thick). The 3/4″ vs. 1″ difference is, admittedly, a small thing, but I prefer 1″ in a lot of cases for old house stuff. The thinner modern 3/4″ boards just don’t look the same! 3/4″ boards are much more readily available, though, and ideally you want to be working with good, straight and knot-free lumber—poplar is nice for a painted finish, clear pine, or even oak for a stain-grade or just a very snazzy cabinet.

For this, too, I used salvaged wood. This was a pain but I did it anyway, because I have a thing for overcomplicating and I like using up my supply so I feel less nuts. Because the wood was a rag-tag pile of old, old-ish, and kinda-new-but-not-new-new, I had to run it all through the planer to get it to even thicknesses—essential for face frames. With new wood, you’re probably safe to skip this step.

There are multiple ways to go about a face frame, so I thought I’d try two of them. The first way is to pre-assembled it using some kind of joinery—in this case, the Kreg pocket hole system, which is easy to use and people love. From there, you can glue and face-nail to the carcasses, or attach it with pocket screws pre-drilled into the outside of the carcasses. I like the glue and face-nail approach because it’s easy.

Part of the goal here is to make the cabinets appear as one substantial unit rather than individual boxes, so a pre-assembled face frame can get rather large and unwieldy—getting the one for the two big uppers into position was actually kind of difficult, and I felt like maybe this approach wasn’t worth it.

So for the rest of the cabinets, I assembled the face-frames piece by piece, glueing and nailing them directly to the carcasses, being careful to maintain evenly sized (AND SQUARE) openings for the doors. With bulky stiles like this, you could also opt to make the carcasses a little smaller and use spacers between them, so that the face-frame only overlaps the interior of the cabinet by about a 1/4″. For a soft-close hidden hinge, that would definitely be the better approach, but my hinges will be attached to the face frame itself so it doesn’t really matter. I decided I’d rather keep the interior space in the cabinets.

If that top rail of the face frame up at the ceiling looks a little bulky, by the way, it’s because part of it will be covered with a simple crown—this one, I think!

The bottom rail, where the cabinet meets the floor, is going to be flush with the face-frames (like in my friend’s kitchen!), but I think it will be better to install that once the flooring is in, so I’m holding off. I’ll have to shim out the 2×4 bases for that, which isn’t such a big deal. Ideally they would be the same depth as the carcass already but I didn’t realize how far I’d be shimming the cabinets to make the room square. I’ll also finish off the big cabinet next to the fridge once the countertop goes in—I have to decide whether I want the backsplash to wrap the sides or just be more painted wood. Decisions!

STEP 13: BUILD AND INSTALL THE SHELVES!

I found it pretty equally easy to drill the shelf pin holes before assembly and after, but I think I prefer to do it after because seeing the cabinets installed gives me a better sense of where I’ll actually want adjustable shelving. Since the Kreg shelf pin drilling jig is only 6 holes, they include that chrome piece you see in the bottom hole, which allows you to just move the jig up, insert that pin into the top hole of the line you just drilled, and drill 5 more. And so on! Perfect spacing!

To construct the shelves, you can make this easy or you can make this complicated. I chose both.

One approach: For the tall upper cabinets, I planned for glass doors so it matters more what the shelves look like—and again, 3/4″ thickness just looks too flimsy for my pain-in-the-butt tastes. To save some time and energy, I bought pine stair treads, which are a full inch thick, from Lowe’s and just cut them to size, keeping the bullnose for the front-facing edge.

Another approach: Use regular 1x lumber for shallower shelves.

Another approach: Cut 3/4″ plywood to size and use iron-on edge banding to finish off the front edge. Stain or paint.

Another approach (above): Cut 3/4″ plywood to 1″ shy of your desired depth, and then glue and face-nail a bullnosed piece of 1x OR 5/4″ to the front. Using 5/4″ will give the illusion of a thicker shelf, but make sure it doesn’t interfere with your shelf pins. I made the bullnose on my router table using a 1/2″ roundover bit. You could also just use a regular square piece of trim to fake the thickness, too, if the bullnose lifestyle isn’t for you.

STEP 14: PRIME, SAND, AND PREP FOR FILLER AND CAULK!

Because I was exceedingly lazy about pre-priming, I had to prime everything once assembled. There are a LOT of knots between the beadboard, the stair-treads-turned-shelves, and even the face-frames, so I opted to just prime EVERYTHING with Zinsser’s Shellac-base primer. I love this stuff. I find shellac primer by far the most effective for blocking bleed-through from the knots, and it goes on thin and dries VERY VERY fast, meaning I can get a lot done in a short period.

I like to prime and then give everything a light sanding—this, I think, is the key to a slick paint job. You know how sometimes, you can sand and sand and sand and the wood is still kind of…fuzzy? This takes care of that problem, because the primer will basically bind and harden all of the texture and fuzzies softer woods like pine have before painting, and then a light sanding takes it all off and leaves you with a silky smooth surface to accept your finish paint. It’s also best to pre-prime before applying caulk or fillers—both will hold up better when applied to a primed surface rather than raw wood.

Also. I really want to have the sink/countertop in before I commit to the tile and/or the paint color for the cabinets, but I can’t possibly be expected to live with all these empty cabinets until that comes to pass. GIMME THAT STORAGE. There’s also no reason I need the doors installed right now, except that they would help keep the interior contents of the cabinets from gathering dust. But having everything primed at least means it’s all easy to wipe down in the meantime!

OBVIOUSLY AND VERY CLEARLY there’s still a ways to go with this room, but it’s still going to be quite a process for all the elements to really come together. But can you…see it?! I’m SO HAPPY. For the first time in YEARS I’m able to have all the kitchen stuff IN THE KITCHEN PART OF THE HOUSE and it just feels so very civilized.

LOOK AT ALL MY STUFF! LOOK HOW THE VACUUM CLEANER HAS A HOME! MY CAKE STAND HAS A HOME! MY DENTED REFRIGERATOR HAS A HOME! I’m not completely sure how I want to arrange storage in that tall cabinet next to the fridge, so for now I hung some old track shelving in there which is a good start.

Hilariously, the microwave wound up being too deep for the cabinets I built specifically TO HOLD THE MICROWAVE. Doh! I realized it halfway through building the carcasses, and committed to just getting a new microwave when I’m ready to install the cabinet doors. For now, whatever. It’s a decade-old microwave I got from my friend Anna, so it’s OK. I’m a grown ass man. I can buy my own microwave I guess.

I’m sort of amazed by how much material is going into this room! The beadboard ceiling is installed but the walls aren’t, I need to install the crown, make all the doors, trim out the window and exterior doorway (the current door trim is 1 part of a 3 part built-up trim), trim out the entrance from the kitchen into the pantry (with a transom window!), install lighting, make a wood medallion for the ceiling fixture, have the sink and countertop fabricated and installed, figure out a backsplash, install the floor tile, paint everything…but getting to this place of basic functionality feels great. And did I mention huge?! I’m super pleased with how much function is getting packed into this less-than-60-square-foot space!

Oh, and by the way? This was also the last project at my house for 2018, and now we’re going to hop on over to…the cottage! It’s your moment, little house! So. Excited. I. Can’t. Even. We’ll circle back to this pantry when I have more to share!

Couch Potato Diaries: Stop Losing the Apple TV Remote

I’m not going to say it’s the worst thing, but it ranks. Let’s set a scene. Maybe you’ve made your dinner. Maybe you had a long day. You go to curl up on the couch and finish the Netflix series you’ve been binging (it’s Wild Wild Country, if you know what’s good for you).

The fucking Apple TV remote is nowhere to be found. It could be between the cushions. It could be under the sofa. It could be in your pocket. Maybe it’s already in your hand. The night is ruined until you find it, and your dinner is cold.

There simply must be a better way. This cannot stand.

You know what’s funny about this future-time we live in? Both pieces of technology above are still relevant and do the same thing. It’s like…COME ON television and cable companies, get your shit together! Why does a cable box still need to be so enormous? Why do television clickers still need a thousand buttons? Apple sorted this mess out like a decade ago and y’all still using, like, original Betamax players as design inspiration. It’s a crying shame.

But also…the Apple TV remote is so slim, so tiny, so easily misplaced that I often wonder if it’s actually terrible design masquerading as good design? I, for one, lose the thing constantly. (And yes, I know there’s a remote app on my iPhone, but I can never get it to work so like most technology that doesn’t work immediately without issue, I pretend it doesn’t exist.)

So if you are like me and tired of this bullshit, I have a very complicated project for you. See if you can keep up.

Get some stick-on velcro. Put some on the back of your Apple TV remote, and then put some on the back of that black brick that came with your TV that you can’t possibly lose because it’s the biggest thing on your coffee table. Line up the velcro and press the clickers together.

Classy. Elegant. Impossible to lose.

Carry on. You’re welcome.

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!

Building the Faux Fireplace!

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Since I’ve been dealing with something of a forced hiatus from working on the cottage due to the gas/heat issues, I’ve taken the opportunity to refocus on my own renovation. Remember that? A lot of people in my life have assumed that since I’ve taken on a whole other renovation, my own house must be close to completion. VERY FALSE. I could try to list all the things I still need to do, but it would take you like three days to read and give me a panic attack, so just take my word for it. It’s a lot.

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I’ve talked before about the room at the front of our house, which was likely originally a parlor. It’s the first room t0 the right when you walk in the front door (you can look at a floor plan here), and essentially rounds out the side of this floor I’ve been working on since we bought the house—first with the kitchen, then the laundry room, then the dining room. A while ago, Max and I decided that this room would be a study/library/office type space (since there’s a much larger living room right across the hall), but we’ve since sort of switched gears on that. Realistically, the “big living room” is probably a couple years off—even though I’m dying to get to it, it’s low on the priority list. I don’t want to wait that long to have some kind of space to sit and hang out and entertain, though, so I want this to be the living room for now! It’ll still house the books (or most of them, anyway), but also a couch and a couple chairs and stuff like that. I’ve been working hard to get it done-ish before the cottage drags me back into its clutches.

ANYWAY. I’ve talked about this before, but one of my big conundrums with this room was the feeling that there was something missing. The wall that the room shares with the dining room is bumped-out, and there’s this narrow/shallow little closet on the side that I’ve been informed is called a chimney cupboard, and would have been used for wood storage and whatnot. You can kind of tell from the crappy picture above (taken at our first walk-through) that there’s a large patch in the floor in front of this wall, and that the baseboard ends abruptly.

I’m not sure exactly what was here originally, but I have a couple reasonable guesses. There’s a chimney behind the wall (which has since been dismantled below the roof line, so doesn’t actually do anything), and a vent hole up near the ceiling. The floor patch indicates that there was some kind of stone hearth set into the floor here, and likely a wood-burning stove sitting on top of that. Our house was built around 1865, and since radiators didn’t come into use until the end of the century (and could have been installed here as late as the 1920s, perhaps), wood stoves would have been the original heat source. As for a mantel, it’s anyone’s guess. There’s a beautiful marble one in the big living room, but whatever used to live on this wall has been gone for a long time.

Given all of this, I had this big idea. Why not put something back in that spot? Even if it didn’t actually serve a functional purpose, a proper-looking fireplace would go a long way toward anchoring the room and providing some nice ambiance. The fireplace in our apartment is purely ornamental, but just the fact that it’s there gives the room so much. So that is what I set out to do. Fake fireplace plan: a-go.

A quick word about the fakey-ness of it all: I feel so weird about this kind of thing! I sort of think of myself as a modernist renovating an old house, and this kind of thing feels distinctly not-modernist. It’s the same feeling I get about putting up a bunch of foam ceiling medallions (which I’ve faux-aged on top of it!) or trying to recreate original molding work like I did in the laundry room. What’s so wrong with new work looking…new? Isn’t there something much more honest and authentic about just embracing all the original detail that does remain in this house, and allowing the new work and materials to just be what they are? I don’t know. I think about it a lot. But at the end of the day, I guess I want the house to seem more impeccably preserved than it actually is, for better or worse. So I’m going with it!

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SO, now that I’ve written like 700 words and bored you to tears, let’s get into how this faux-fireplace party went down. It started with this mantel. Back in MAY. Yeah, this took a while from start to finish. My wonderful and insanely talented friend, John, ripped this mantel out of his house during his own renovation, but had stashed it in his basement instead of tossing it. His house was built in 1723, and this mantel was fabricated and added in the 1920s. I’d say John’s renovation sensibility is a bit more purist than mine, so he worked with a woodworker to custom build a more period-accurate mantel to replace this one (which is gorgeous, by the way). So anyway…John had a mantel, I needed a mantel, John didn’t want any money for it, I like free things…it worked out.

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When I got the mantel home, I opened up the part of the wall where the old mantel would have theoretically been, wondering if I’d find a firebox or just the chimney. Just the chimney! Since there wasn’t any depth to work with inside the wall, whatever would go on the inside of the mantel had to be essentially flush with the wall. Hmmm. Hmmmmmmm.

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I dragged the mantel into place-ish (Linus assisted), just to get a sense of how it would look and feel. Even though this thing is quite a bit newer than my house, I feel like it plays really nicely with our moldings. As you can tell from the floor patch, it’s about a foot or so wider than what was here originally, which is something I sort of fretted over before deciding to just go with. I really didn’t want to get into trying to hack the mantel down to the “right” size (I liked the proportions of it as-is), and I really liked the idea of using this mantel in particular because I had it, I didn’t have to pay for it, and I liked the whole story behind it. Something new or salvaged just wouldn’t have held the same meaning to me.

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So, onwards! I removed the old patch job with no real plan about what was to go in its place, but sometimes you just need to dive in and figure it out later.

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Unfortunately, this plaster wall was just beyond the point of trying to salvage. The plaster had separated a lot from the lath, it had some very significant cracks, and had undergone some failed repair attempts over the years with lots and lots of joint compound but nothing (like mesh tape, plaster buttons, or screening) to stabilize the plaster from further shifting. Even though I want to save as much of the original plaster walls in the house as possible, the best course of action here was to just start over, so that’s what I did!

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Since new 1/2″ drywall wouldn’t match the original depth of the plaster walls, I experimented with reusing the original lath strips, this time nailed directly onto the wall framing. I could have also just left all of the lath in place, but I’d already taken it down and this allowed me to still salvage the bulk of it for some other use down the road. I have no idea what to do with all my lath, but I’ll come up with something!

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Putting up the new drywall was no big thing. Since the underlying framing wasn’t very smooth, the drywall wasn’t either—but I had a plan! I actually wanted it to be a little irregular to mimic the look of the other plaster walls.

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I used fiberglass mesh tape and joint compound to cover the seams and screw holes. You typically do three coats of joint compound with new drywall and then finish off with a fine sanding before paint.

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I wanted to experiment with getting more of an authentic plaster look, though, so I opted to skim-coat the entire wall with joint compound. I just used the pre-mixed all-purpose stuff, and I wasn’t too careful about it: I wanted the thickness of the skim-coat to vary slightly along the surface of the wall. In some places it’s barely there at all, and in some places it’s probably about 1/8″ thick.

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Here’s a terrible picture of the whole wall skim-coated. The whiter spots are where the joint compound is thinner and dried faster. It doesn’t look at all like a textured wall or anything—it’s just very very subtly uneven so that it doesn’t stand out as looking flat and new. I sanded it all before painting and it really is indistinguishable from the plaster. Yay!

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Ok, moving on…one of the big challenges was figuring out the material for the hearth. There were a few options here. Sometimes, like in our apartment fireplace, you’ll see a tiled hearth—but tile is tough to pull off without the whole thing looking brand new. New tile isn’t made the same way as old tile and doesn’t have the same character, so I’d either have to get really spendy reproduction tile or find something salvage. What I thought I really wanted, though, was a nice slab of honed marble. I mean, what’s more classic and pretty than marble, right? Since the size I needed was somewhat irregular (about 75 inches with a flexible depth, ideally between about 16-24 inches) I thought maybe I could find something cheap-ish in the remnant section of a stone yard.

Wrong! I took myself to a local stone place (that mainly does countertops and stuff) and found this really gorgeous slab. It was honed, it was about the right size, and it was even a little damaged along the edges and had a couple scratches, which I sort of liked. But then it priced out at over a thousand dollars, so I burst into tears and ran away. Soapstone was even more expensive, and granite was a little cheaper but still too much money, and I didn’t want granite at all anyway.

bluestone

Then it dawned on me: what about good old Kingston bluestone? I suppose it’s even possible that that’s what was here originally, but who knows. I could probably find something that was locally quarried, super pretty, and much cheaper than marble or soapstone. It would reference Kingston history and even sort of tie into the exterior of the house, which is lined with bluestone sidewalks and pathways.

It just so happens that John, the same friend who gave me the mantel, worked for a couple of years as a stone mason when he first moved up here. My friends, bear in mind that this man is an optometrist. Almost 15 years ago at this point, he decided to take a break from optometry, pretty much just for the sake of learning something awesome that he felt passionate about, and I guess that thing was building stone walls and stuff. He worked as an apprentice under a stone mason named Sean Fox. So when I mentioned wanting bluestone, John knew who to call!

Sean was awesome to work with. I told him what I was doing and what I wanted, and he helped me find slabs that were good options. He also has the cutest German Shepherd named Dante, who is modeling the slab that I chose! The slab was thicker than I anticipated (Sean said that a thinner slab was likely to crack either during transport or once it was in place) and cost $400, which I figured was reasonable. I don’t know if I could have found the stone cheaper elsewhere, but at that point I was excited to have found something I liked and from somebody who understood what I was after. They had to cut the slab down slightly to fit my dimensions, and then burned the edges just a bit. I didn’t want it to look machine-cut, but I also didn’t want it to look overly rustic and rough-hewn, either. He did a perfect job, and I got to pick it up a week later.

FYI, bluestone is HEAVY. I don’t know how much this thing weighed, but I’d guess around a thousand pounds. Seriously! Sean loaded it into the back of John’s pick-up with a forklift, but it was up to me to figure out how to get it into my house and in place on the other end. Yikes! So one day, I finagled all of the people working over at Bluestone Cottage to take a break and walk over to my house to help with this thing. The whole ordeal was VERY STRESSFUL. I don’t have any pictures because I was helping and also shielding my eyes and generally terrified that the whole thing would go crashing through the floor and down into the basement and the whole house would collapse. But between about 6 guys, we were able to get it inside and into place and it wasn’t even as horrible as anticipated. I had to cut out a little more of the floor beforehand, but that wasn’t a big deal.

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With the mantel in my possession and the hearth in the floor (and not going anywhere, ever), I still had to figure out how to sort out the space inside the mantel. I really fly by the seat of my pants, evidently! John actually gave me some cast iron insert parts that were with the mantel back at his house, but they were designed for a firebox and wouldn’t work here, since the wall doesn’t actually have any depth. I really needed something that would cover the entire surface and give the illusion of depth behind it without actually requiring it.

Enter: the fireplace cover! I went to one of the salvage places in town and found this big old rusty cast iron beauty. It isn’t so hard to find the arched (or sometimes rectangular) surrounding part, but the summer cover that goes inside it (exactly what it sounds like—a decorative cover to conceal the firebox in the months when the fireplace wouldn’t be in use) is a bit more rare—and finding the two together is even more challenging! I got really lucky that this one was waiting for me. The dimensions were perfect, and the detailing is just gorgeous! It’s definitely very Victorian (my house is more Greek Revival—in other words, pre-Victorian), but I love it all the same. It came home with me for $150, which is more than I wanted to spend, but after some poking around online seems to be a steal of a deal.

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OK, so! Mantel—check! Hearth—check! Summer cover—check! The next decision was AGONY. What to put between the inside edges of the mantel and the summer cover? Usually I’m pretty decisive with this stuff, but this whole project seemed so full of unknowns and opportunities to royally fuck everything up and end up with something that looked super dumb and super faux and lame and I was very afraid of that happening. The idea of tile was kind of nice, but it was the same issue with the hearth—new tile would result in the whole thing looking new and kind of cheesy, and vintage or repro tiles are so hard to come by and so expensive, and I’d already spent way more money (remember, I’m $550 deep at this point!) on this project that is purely aesthetic and was supposed to be essentially free. Then I went through this long phase where I thought about doing brick veneer tiles and painting them, but I eventually got over it and nixed that idea. I became mildly obsessed with old fireplaces everywhere I went—studying them to figure out what would look authentic and be feasible, and what I landed on was a plastered treatment. You see this a lot in old houses—maybe a brick surround that’s been plastered over and painted. Often the hearth is also painted, but I wasn’t about to slap paint on my bluestone!

So anyway. More faux. I turned the mantel around, screwed a scrap piece of 1/2″ drywall in through the back, and traced the outer edges of the cover with a sharpie. The inner part of the cover is deeper than the outer part, if that makes sense, so the outside needed a lip to sit flush with, while the inside needed a little space behind the face of the drywall. I have no idea if I’m explaining this well. Then I took a drywall knife and cut an inch or two inside my sharpie line and removed the inner piece. Then I (finally!) moved the mantel into place and secured it to the wall by screwing a few 4″ screws through the front and into studs. Then I simply patched the holes (I like Ready Patch for small things like this—it sands down smoother than wood putty) and caulked the places where the mantel meets the wall. Then I just had to patch in a few floor boards and the original molding that I pried off and saved way back when I started this whole rigamarole.

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Since drywall is so flat and smooth, I used more joint compound to create the faux plaster effect. I was very liberal with it—sort of slathering it on with a 6″ putty knife, intentionally creating and leaving ridges and imperfections along the way. You can sort of tell from the picture how the texture looks, but it wasn’t super evident until I got to the painting step. Anyway, once everything had about 36 hours to dry, I gave it the lightest sanding and moved on.

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Because the summer cover had been sitting outside for so long at the salvage place and was covered in rust, I used this wire brush attachment on my drill to clean up the surface and prepare it for paint. These things are great for stuff like this! Then I went back in with a regular wire brush to get in the nooks and crannies of the pattern. I’d say all the prep took maybe an hour, and then I just wiped it down with a damp microfiber cloth and let it dry.

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Securing the cover ended up being easier than anticipated. Before I put the whole thing in place, I painted a piece of drywall black and screwed that into the studs, so that you don’t see the framing through the holes in the summer cover pattern. Because the summer cover interlocks with the outer part, all I did to secure the whole assembly was use existing holes in the summer cover pattern. I drove two large screws into the studs behind—you can sort of see the screws in the picture above. The heads are sunk into the existing holes in the pattern, and after the paint, you have to really search for them. Nobody will ever notice except me. And everyone I tell.

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FINALLY, PAINT TIME! I had about half a can of high-gloss black oil paint from the failed kitchen floor experiment of yore, and so I broke it out here. This makes the project, as far as I’m concerned. The gloss black accentuates the texture of the faux-plaster business and the intricacy of the summer cover, but I think keeps everything looking understated and classic and pretty. Oil paint is so nice to work with once in a while for small stuff like this—there’s really nothing like it. After this first coat, I caulked at the transition between the cover and the faux-plastered surround and then painted a second coat. The finish is so hard and smooth and pretty. I’m thrilled with how it turned out!

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ANNNNDDDDD, DONE. I love it. I really do. It completely changes the room. I don’t feel like it dominates, but it does provide a focal point and just a certain ambiance that was missing before. And I feel like it just fits—like you’d never walk into the house and think it was added recently or even really pay a lot of attention to it at all. That’s exactly what I wanted.

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I’m happy with the way it ended up fitting on the wall, too! Even though it’s a little wider than whatever was here originally, I don’t think it feels out of place or two big for the room.

I love the bluestone, but I do keep wondering what would happen if I tried to darken it up a little bit. I’m sort of afraid to touch it because I don’t want to ruin it, but I wonder if mineral oil would have the same kind of effect on this that it does on soapstone? I don’t know. I’ll live with it for a while and see how I’m feeling some other time.

I’m resisting showing wider shots of the room because it’s actually almost done! Told you I’ve been working hard. There are still a few major items to check off the to-do list, but I’m super excited about the way it’s coming together. It’s so weird and exciting to have this whole other usable space in the house! I can’t wait!

Blogger Special: I Built a Bench!

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It’s no secret that my blog has changed a lot the past couple of years. When we bought the house, my little thrifting/DIY-logue sort of turned into all-out balls to the walls renovation craziness. I’ve written (and perhaps you’ve read…) entire posts about semi-technical plumbing matters and roofing and skim-coating walls and all manner of things that were barely on my radar before all of this lunacy started. I never made some kind of conscious choice to start doing that, but this blog is, after all, a loose reflection of what’s going on in this area of my life…and that’s the kind of stuff I’ve been up to.

Sometimes I need a break from talking about that stuff, though. I miss the other stuff. The smaller projects. Those fun little things that take a couple of hours and then…BOOM: NEW THING! I lovingly refer to these projects as Blogger Projects. Projects can be more or less Blogger, depending on their materials, steps, and length of time to complete. To me the most Blogger Projects involve four basic steps:

1. Reuse a mass-produced object that a reader can go buy.

2. Embellish said object. The options here are literally endless. There’s glitter. There’s washi tape. There’s spray paint. Did I mention washi tape? Well, there’s washi tape.

3. Complete project in 30 minutes to 1 hour. Obviously then you have to photograph it while the light is still good and throw together a post so devoting too much time to the project itself is just unwise. Everyone will pin it and forget it anyway so it doesn’t even really matter if it falls apart right after the pictures are taken.

4. Promote that object because damn, you’re one clever blogger and you thrive on the attention.

Obviously there are degrees of blogger-ness, and I’ll leave it to you to create your own scale. Like, to me, if a project involves washi tape it’s Very Blogger and might score a high 6 or 7. But put that washi tape in a chevron pattern and that’s a 10 out of 10 right there. Super Duper Blogger.

Point is, a couple of weeks ago I got the itch to complete a Blogger Project. On the scale I’d maybe put it at a 4 or 5 for various reasons I’ll get into, but it’s still relatively Blogger.

ottomansbefore

I bought these funny little ottomans at Target, oh, maybe over a year ago, so I lose some Blogger Points because I can’t tell you how to buy them. They’re discontinued now and long gone. They were part of the cheap dorm “Room Essentials” line and I think they were $15-20 each. I really disliked the color of the bases and the top (it’s just a cheap piece of foam with a cheap nylon upholstery overtop), but the shape of the bases is so nice! They’re powder-coated steel, so they’re very sturdy and seem well-made, too.

Anyway, I didn’t know quite what I was going to do with them at the time, but I knew the bases would be useful for something. My other big idea was to get two pieces of marble remnants cut for the tops and use them as bedside tables. I could have sworn I bought four, so if the other two ever resurface I’d still be down to make that happen.

So anyway. Thing from Target. 1 point.

rustoleum

Where would bloggers be without spray paint? I mean really. I unscrewed the upholstered tops from the base and threw them away. Then I wiped off the bases with TSP substitute (they’d been sitting in my basement for a while and were sort of grimy), waited for them to be totally dry, and hit them with a couple coats of matte black spray paint. It was a little tricky to get into all the nooks and crannies what with all the angles on the bases, but I managed. I’m a professional.

Spray paint: 1 point

presanding

This is where things get really exciting. I’m fanatical about saving any old lumber that comes out of my house, which is becoming a huge problem over at the cottage, where there is lots and lots of old framing lumber . Even just lath and framing lumber feels totally wrong to just throw away, especially because I know it technically can be reused in interesting ways (that I am unlikely to actually do, let’s be real). Anyway. I had 4 six-ish-foot long old 2″x4″ studs that came out of our downstairs bathroom ceiling during demo. I still have to talk about how the rest of the demo of that room went! OOPS. Anyway, these studs are probably about 150 years old, super splintery and grimy and gross, but I threw them in the basement anyway because that’s what I do. My basement is truly horrific.

Anyway, I’m going to give myself a Blogger Point for reclaimed lumber. I’m on the fence about this but I think it qualifies.

sandingprocess

Anyway, after yanking and hammering through all the old nails, I sanded the old studs. I generally find sanding wood pretty exciting, especially when it’s like this! The wood on the right hasn’t been sanded and the other two boards on the top have—huge difference, right? I just used 60 or 80 grit on an orbital sander and went over all sides until the studs no longer seemed super rough. It’s hard to know when to stop with wood like this, and a lot of it comes down to personal taste. Trying to get the wood too smooth would sacrifice too much of the dark spots and overall patina, so I tried to keep the sanding fairly minimal—just enough so the wood didn’t seem like a splintery hazard. Remember that any type of finish will also darken the wood and bring out the natural tones, to the post-sanded, pre-finished wood is much lighter than it will look when all is said and done.

polycrylic

Ideally I like to use more natural-looking, oil-type finishes for stuff like this (like Tung Oil Finish or Danish Oil), but in this case the wood was still kind of rough and I decided good old water-based polyurethane was the way to go. I have to say, I really like this stuff. The satin finish gives a nice amount of sheen without looking shiny or plastic-y, and it does a really effective job of not only sealing the wood, but also smoothing out imperfections and sort of filling in the grain on softer woods like this. The water-based stuff dries super fast, too, so usually I brush it on, wait half an hour, lightly sand, and brush on another coat, and repeat. 2-3 coats is usually best.

construction

Constructing the bench was very simple. I just used 3 12″ steel mending plates (which I also sprayed black—one on each end and one in the middle) and screwed them into the wood with #10 1″ zinc wood screws. Done. After that, it was just a matter of screwing the bases into the new wood top through the original holes. Easy peasy.

Basic pieces from hardware store: 1 Blogger Point.

roomshot

Aaaaaand, bench! Done! In the dining room! I like this thing. It was simple to make (the whole thing took a few hours, but most of that was just waiting for stuff to dry), and it’s high enough to act as additional seating if we have lots of people over and need to expand the table. I like that I don’t have to keep extra chairs floating around in the room for that. I threw an IKEA sheepskin on top because, well, it’s very Blogger to do that sort of thing. 1 point.

wood

I really love how the lumber turned out. It’s really smooth to the touch because of the polyurethane, but it still looks rough and worn and old, like I like it. The color is so rich, too. See why I can’t just throw it out? I have a problem.

So anyway. Thing from Target. Spray paint. Reclaimed lumber. Basic hardware store supply. Sheepskin. 5 Blogger points. Not too shabby.

OK, back to our regularly scheduled programming super soon. I have COTTAGE DEMO to discuss!

EDIT: It has been requested (mainly by my mother and brother) that the dogs be included in this post, so here we go. Mekko wasn’t in the mood to have her photo taken but Linus doesn’t know what’s going on either way, so here! He’s getting groomed tomorrow.

linus

 

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