All posts in: DIY Tutorials

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.

wallbefore

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!

atjohnshouse

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.

mantelinplaceish

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.

hearthcutout

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.

guttedwall

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!

lathshims

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!

drywallinplace

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.

drywalled

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.

skimcoatingwall

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.

skimcoatedwall

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!

marble

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.

summercover

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.

drywalltracing

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.

roughskimcoat

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.

wirecupbrush

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.

coveron

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.

painting

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!

fireplace3

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.

Fireplace2

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

 

I Built a Fence!

Status report: my inexpensive and talented but very flakey electrician keeps canceling (also known as not showing up), which means we haven’t been able to have the work finished, which means it can’t be inspected, which means stuff like the pantry and the ceiling-less dining room and the ceiling-less front room and patching the swiss-cheese walls in the entryway have more or less come to a stand-still. For a week or two, this led me to destroy more things (different post, different day) on the inside of the house, which is technically forward motion but kind of just feels like I’m making everything worse in our torn-apart house. It’s like I’m trying to figure out how many things I can break down before I start putting them back together again. It’s this fun game I play with myself where I end up totally insane.

I need a new electrician. And someone needs to confiscate my pry bar.

Honestly, I’m a little sulky and annoyed about the electrical thing, but secretly (except now, since I’m telling you) it’s also been a perfect excuse to finally get out of the house and get my hands dirty in, like, actual dirt instead of plaster dust and other types of dust and more dust. What a concept.

We’ve been in our house a whole year (and eleven days, technically) and thus far this is all we’ve accomplished in terms of exterior projects:

newporchlights

1. We added some new light fixtures. Big improvement, but I had very little to do with it beyond coordinating the electrical work and buying and installing the lights.

service

2. We had new electrical service run to the house, including a new service drop and converting to a single meter rather than two, since now the house is a single family. Hard to decide if it looks better or worse.

3. Mowing the lawn. Occasionally. Weed-wacking even more occasionally. We’re a mess.

yardclearing

4. Clearing a crazy jungle that had cropped up on the side of the garage, a bunch of grapevine that had run rampant from a neighbor’s property, and miles of Virginia Creeper that had overtaken the saddest and weediest flower bed ever at the back of the property. Much of which is creeping back a year later. Go figure.

roofbeforeafter

5. Getting a new roof, which was a hellish and drawn-out ordeal involving 4 different roofing contractors spread out over about 8 months and something I’d pretty much rather die than repeat. What. A. Nightmare. But it’s done. Or done-ish. Done enough. Fuck roofing.

We’re awesome neighbors. I’m guessing the neighborhood had higher expectations when the house sold and a couple of homosexuals moved in. Homosexuals are notoriously good at having good taste and making things prettier, and I feel like we’ve been letting everyone down since our beautiful tiny laundry room hardly qualifies as an appreciable improvement to the curb appeal of our house. Most of the houses on our block don’t have a whole lot going on in the way of landscaping and whatnot, so I’ve tried to stem my guilt by thinking about it that way, but I’m a neurotic Jew. Guilt is my #1 emotion and way of being.

ANYWAY. Let’s remind ourselves of our yard situation:

YARD

As you can see, there are a few different issues.

1. All the asphalt. It must go. I hate it with every fiber of my being, and I’d give my left kidney to have it disappear and be replaced with something. Anything. I don’t care if it looks like the fucking dust bowl. I don’t even care of the Virginia Creeper wants to colonize the entire thing. I just want it to be gone. I guess the previous owner of our house had several cars and decided to pave half the yard with asphalt, but we have one car and it is tiny and I don’t need or want it at all. Not even a little bit. I think we’ll still have some kind of a gate and parking situation next to the garage, but I’d much rather just have two strips of bluestone or concrete or something with pebbles or ground cover surrounding it. I hate asphalt.

2. I found out from my neighbors that the old foundation (cinderblock disaster/weed jungle) just behind the garage was actually a half-baked plan to extend the garage, which is a horrendous idea that I’m glad never came to fruition. The garage is actually a really pretty cute little structure and I shudder to think what any kind of renovation would have done to it. That said, now we are stuck with a wildly unattractive crumbling foundation of broken dreams that all needs to be excavated and hauled away. Boo.

3. The biggest problem here, strangely, is the fence. There is fencing surrounding the entire property, which is great. I’m glad it’s there. But the purple lines demarcate an old (original, probably) wrought-iron fence, which I love, and the black lines are all cheap and very crappy chain link that’s all falling apart and looking a hot mess. And as much as I love the wrought iron fence, it’s only 3 feet tall. And despite that the top of it is surrounded by a threatening row of spikes (so witchy!), I have a Pit Bull with a very impressive vertical leap who can clear it with a smile on her face. Not safe.

wroughtironfence

Now, we never leave the dogs in the backyard unattended, but there’s always the risk that Mekko will get excited by something and jump over. It’s happened three times in the course of a year, and she hasn’t done anything bad or anything like that, but it’s so scary. We live on a fairly busy street in terms of both foot and car traffic, and I’d really prefer if my dog didn’t get hit by a car or terrify an unsuspecting neighbor who wasn’t quite prepared for a Pit Bull to jump the fence to greet them. Even if it’s friendly.

So, when Mekko jumped the fence last week to go see her friend(ish…they have a rocky relationship) Bailey from across the street (an adorable 150-pound white Boxer…I don’t blame her), I felt very overcome with the need to do something and do it now in terms of getting our fence situation sorted a little bit. Panic is pretty much my main motivational tactic (aside from guilt, as we have established, but the two go hand in hand), and the idea of my dog’s safety being at risk pretty much brings my panic-meter off the charts. So I built a panic fence.

This panic-induced fence was actually kind of a good thing. I’ve been planning it more or less since we moved in, but fencing is intimidating. There are so many different styles and decisions to be made, and after mulling it over for so long, I was more overwhelmed than anything else. Vertical boards or horizontal? Pre-fab panels or individual pickets? Attractive gate hardware? Post caps? Paint? Stain? Seal? Let it weather naturally? I’m exhausted.

There is SO. MUCH. TO. THINK. ABOUT. This is the kind of shit that keeps me up at night.

Added to this is the exact location of the fence. I definitely don’t want my house to look like some kind of fortress, and the old wrought-iron fence had to stay, which basically left building a new fence behind the original fence as the best option. Which is a good option, since it gives us the opportunity to have a front yard and a backyard instead of just…a yard. Like so:

YARDnewstuff

Anyway, this  panic-fence didn’t have time for complex decision-making. It just needed to happen. I already knew the general location, so I just measured and took myself to the local lumber yard a few blocks away, made a quick decision between standard stockade fencing and dog-ear style fencing, bought my stuff, stole my friend’s truck, and hauled it all home.

Newsflash: even cheap fencing is expensive.

Newsflash: it’s also very heavy.

Somehow I managed to unload the truck myself (and splinter-free!) and haul my six 6’x8′ panels and 8 4″x4″x8′ posts into the driveway.

I was less than thrilled with the panels I purchased, but at the time they seemed like the cheapest and most attractive option. But they were not nice. The wood was either pine or spruce, and it wasn’t even pressure-treated. Each panel had a few super crappy looking boards, the pickets themselves were narrow and unsubstantial, and they were about $65 a piece.

But then I went to Lowe’s, which is basically my home away from home. The employees are all starting to laugh at me every time they see me there since I am there constantly. I was just getting some supplies for the fencing that I couldn’t find at the local place, and then I meandered over to the fencing section, and developed a serious case of buyer’s remorse. Lowe’s had MUCH nicer dog-ear style fencing. The boards were wider. There was a pressure-treated pine option for about $48/panel and a cedar option for $50/panel.

Now. I’m all about supporting local businesses. Don’t get me wrong. Really, I am. I’m willing to pay a little more to shop local, despite the sorry state of my bank account, because I feel like it’s the right thing to do when given the option. But I’m not willing to sacrifice on quality. Lowe’s was offering a much better product at a much lower price, and it just didn’t make sense to stick with the garbage panels I’d already purchased, particularly since we plan to install the same fencing around the rest of the house to replace the chain-link, and I’d like all the fencing to match. Them’s the breaks. So I had the lumber yard swing by and pick up the shitty panels, loaded my new cedar panels into my friend’s truck, and hauled that all home and unloaded it, again, splinter-free. Tiny miracles, small victories.

Posthole1

Deciding on the exact location of the fence turned out to be easy due to this weird section of missing bluestone next to the foundation a few feet behind the front of the house. The missing bluestone had been filled in with a thin-ish layer of concrete, which was getting in the way of digging my first post hole. So I rented a jackhammer, you know, like you do. This location turns out to be perfect since it’s about 4 feet back from the front corner of the house, and gives is over 18 feet of front yard space between the wrought iron fence and the new fence. 18 feet! Right now it’s all sod, but eventually I don’t want any grass whatsoever and I want it to be a luscious magical garden that both I and the neighborhood can admire. I’m so excited.

Back to the jackhammer. There is no photographic evidence of this, unfortunately, since I was mostly flying solo here, but I discovered that using an electronic jackhammer is not only really very easy, but also really very fun. I’m a tiny person without a lot of weight or muscle, so if I can do it, you can probably do it. The hardest part was carrying the thing around, since it probably weighs about 80 pounds. And then clearing out whatever you’re jackhammering.

concretepath

While I had the jackhammer at my disposal, I also decided to get rid of this weird concrete path in front of the house, next to the entryway steps. I don’t know why this path was ever put in, since it has no access from the outside or from the porch, really, but I figured the space could be much better served by plants than by concrete. Little did I realize that the concrete was VERY deep in spots and underneath it was a ton of rock, which all had to be excavated and hauled out before it could be back-filled with dirt. Luckily, digging fence posts creates a lot of displaced soil.

concreteremnants

Here are the remnants of the path and the rocky dirt, which I finagled Max into loading into a wheelbarrow and dumping onto the asphalt. It will get hauled away when the asphalt is removed. Which is hopefully super duper soon.

ANYWAY. Once I got the jackhammer situation sorted out and my first whole dug, it was time to place the first post!! EEEEEE! Progress.

post1

BETCHA WEREN’T EXPECTING THAT. Maybe you were. I decided that the fence should be black. I really want it to look as unobtrusive as possible and really recede, and I think the black will do that perfectly. I don’t want a “statement fence” and I don’t want it to detract at all from the architecture of the house. And even though the cedar panels are pretty brand new, they’ll fade over time and I hated the idea of a light wood fence next to the house, calling attention to itself. I’m very, very, very happy with this decision. I used Cabot Solid Color Acrylic Siding Stain (tinted black, obviously), which goes on much like a paint and looks like paint, but should still allow the wood to breathe while also protecting it a bit from the elements. The benefit of using a stain rather than a paint is that it shouldn’t chip and peel over time and need to be redone like paint does.

For the posts, I bought 8 foot long 4×4 pieces of pressure-treated lumber. I dug each post hole about 30″ deep (which, by the way, is really fucking deep), then threw in about 6 inches of drainage gravel, and then filled it in with fast-setting Quickrete, which you just dump into the hole, soak with water, agitate a bit to mix it up (I used a stick), and let it sit, all the while checking that your post is super duper level and won’t move. The concrete sets up in about half an hour. One thing I didn’t account for is that while the local hardware store employees claimed I’d need one 50-lb bag of Quickrete per post, I averaged more like 3 bags per post. Back to Lowe’s! This section of fencing is about 30 feet long, and I think I used somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 bags of Quickrete for the posts. Luckily it’s cheap.

I bought a post-hole digger for this project, but ended up returning it immediately. Soil in Kingston tends to be really rich and kind of sandy, which makes it really very easy to dig. I averaged about 30 minutes to dig each post hole with a shovel. The post-hole digger I think is better if you have really hard soil, but I found it completely worthless for us.

gatebuilding1

After the first post was in and setting, I built the gate! To do this, all I did was cut down one of the 8 foot panels with a jigsaw and added vertical 2×3 supports, which are attached to the original 2×3 horizontal supports. All in all, very easy. It seems super sturdy to me.

gatebuilding2

gate

After it was stained and the second post was in, I put it up! You’ll notice that it’s a bit wider than the path (the gate is little over 3 feet) but I wanted it to be wide enough to cart a wheelbarrow through with ease. I’ll find a way to tastefully widen the path a bit, I think. I picked up a gate hardware kit from Lowe’s (I can’t find the link, sorry!), and two gate hinges. I think I may add a third one to the middle, just for some added support. All are made by Stanley.

L-brackets

The one thing I did do to complicate things for myself was that I decided to space the rest of the posts evenly, rather than 8 feet apart and end up with a shorter panel on the end. Then I decided to attach the panels with stainless steel 5″ L-brackets (spray-painted black) rather than screw the panels into the front of the posts. The L bracket is screwed into the bottom of each of the horizontal 2×3 supports, and then into the 4×4 post. This leaves the front of the post exposed, which I think looks a little nicer and more custom from both the outside and the inside. I was assured that I wouldn’t have a problem with the brackets rusting or falling apart, so I’m hoping for the best. If we run into problems down the line, I think I could replace the brackets with vertical pieces of pressure-treated lumber (exactly like the gate, pretty much), and screw those into the posts. If that makes any sense.

trench

Once all of the posts had set for 24 hours, it was time to put up the panels! Before doing this, I decided to dig about an 8″ deep trench under where the panels would sit and fill them with drainage gravel. We used about 15 bags, which added about $60 to the overall cost of the project, but the gravel should help keep weeds from growing at the fence line, and provide drainage underneath the fence so that the bottoms of the pickets don’t rot out. Additionally, because the fence is black, the gravel should help keep the color looking good when it rains and soil crap would splash up onto the fence if the rocks weren’t there. I think it was worth it.

chainlink

I’m sorry this picture is so awful, but I also wanted to address the section of chain-link fence that would now sit in front of the new fence, which separates our yard from our neighbor’s. Chain-link is just such a bummer, particularly when it’s so close to the street, and I wanted to find something better that would tie in with the original wrought-iron fence in front of both our properties.

fauxwrought

I searched a couple salvage places for something old (no dice), but then on another trip to Lowe’s I found this stuff! It’s nothing super fancy—galvanized steel that’s been powder-coated black, but the size was good, the price was good (about $30 for a 4′ section), and installation seemed (and was) very easy. I really hope it lasts. I thought removing the old chain-link would be a huge pain in the ass, but it was super easy. I used bolt cutters to detach the chain link from the posts, and the posts—which I thought would be set in the ground with concrete) just pulled right out of the ground with a little of my manly brute strength. Awesome. To fit our dimensions, I just had to cut one of the panels down with my Sawzall, which took roughly 30 seconds, and attach it to the last post. Overall, it’s not the fanciest thing in the world, but it does look good and feels pretty rigid, and it ties in nicely with the original fencing.

noraandmax

Did I mention my wonderful and long-suffering friend Nora was here during all of this? Poor thing thought she was coming up for a nice few days in the Hudson Valley and got sucked into my insanity. While the panels were going up, I put Nora and Max on staining duty, which they were obviously loving. It was pretty much the time of their lives. As you can see.

paintingprocess

EEEEEE! Almost done! I include this process image mostly to show the difference between the cedar and the black. See how the cedar is super visible and kind of obtrusive, whereas the black just kind of disappears? I think so, anyway. I also like that it ties in the with the black window sashes and other black accents I have planned for the exterior.

fromback

Annnnnd, DONE! Here’s the view from the back, which I know is nothing amazing but I think a hedge or something will do wonders. The gravel should settle down a bit and look less ugly over time, besides. After all the panels were up and stained, I used my Sawzall to cut the posts to the same-ish heights and topped them with these generic and affordable fence post caps from Lowe’s. I think they look nice!

corner

In the front, I’m super pleased with eliminating the area of chain-link while we were doing this anyway. The fencing on the left is the new faux-wrought iron, which I think looks pretty damn good for what it is. Again, it’ll look better with some plants and whatnot, but it’s just so much more inviting and pretty.

cornerwithpvc

I secured the last faux-wrought-iron fence panel to the wood fence with some super cheap plastic PVC connectors I found in the electrical aisle. They do the job. I spray-painted them black. Exciting stuff, I know.

gatefromoutside

I’m really pleased with how the gate turned out. Nothing fancy, but it opens from the inside and outside and it looks good. Obviously we need a better situation for the hose, but I’ll save that for another day…I have a couple ideas. Let’s just all ignore the vinyl siding and the missing end of the downspout and the foundation work we might have ahead of us. This is about the fence!

fencefromacrossstreet

I really like how it looks from the street, which was obviously a big challenge when thinking about this project. Setting it so far back keeps it really unobtrusive, and I’m SO excited about our new dog-free front yard! I think the fence will look a million times better once we get a bunch of plants growing in front of it and some real landscaping going. All in due time! In the meantime, I have pretty much no experience with landscaping and could use some plant suggestions and ideas for how to use the space…hint, hint.

frontgarden

I’m also really glad I broke up that concrete path and got back those couple of feet of gardening space in the front next to the entry. I backfilled the hole and obviously need to plant some things and mulch, but I think it already looks better. I also went on a MAJOR weeding/pruning spree to try to get the Rhododendron under control a little. I actually really don’t like Rhododendron in general and I don’t like them here (too tall!), but the pruning definitely helped me like them more. Someday I’d like to get rid of them altogether (or at least the one on the right) and replace them with a bunch of other stuff I like more.

header

ANYWAY, I’m so excited to have this new foundation to work with as we start to plan some more landscaping! As for the rest of the fence, I’m not sure I have it in me to DIY-it (it’s a TON of fence…) but we’ll see. There’s also the whole matter of cost—I haven’t added up every little thing, but I think I probably spent about $700 for just this section of the fencing, including the faux-wrought-iron business, so I might continue to just do it in sections where it’s most necessary and go about things that way. For now, I’m just glad to have this section taken care of—not only do I think it adds some curb appeal, but it definitely gives me some peace of mind where the dogs are concerned. They still have plennntttyyyy of space in the backyard to run around and play and poop, and this just goes such a long way toward keeping them safe. So that’s good!

I want to plant stuff. Tell me what to plant.

Replicating Millwork and Stuff in the Laundry Room

Things have been moving right along in the laundry room! So far, smooth sailing. Zero complaints. Looking good. PLUS I got to buy some new tools and try some new stuff and it was fun, which is mainly the subject of this post.

SO. MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS RECAP:

recap

1. The washer and dryer were delivered and they are WONDERFUL. Backing up a bit: we picked out our machines online and ordered them from a sales associate (Frank) at our local Lowe’s store. Frank was truly a delight. Since we’ve never bought a washer and dryer before, Frank really took us through everything we’d need to know about installing and using our new machines, anything additional we needed to buy (dryer vent parts, which dryer plug to use, stainless steel supply lines, that kind of thing), what kind of detergents to use, etc. Since we wanted our dryer to vent out the side instead of the back (so that the machines could sit as close to the wall as possible), Frank also helped us locate the exact part number we needed to order from Lowe’s separately (which, incredibly, was delivered the day after I ordered it over the phone). We scheduled our free home delivery in the store, which was also great. The guys who came to deliver the machines were super nice and very knowledgable. Since we weren’t ready to put the machines in place yet, we opted to leave the shipping bolts in, and the delivery dude showed me where they were and how to remove them and all that. He also advised us to run the dryer empty for an hour to burn off any lingering shipping oils. These guys were excellent is what I’m saying—the whole experience, really. FYI—Lowe’s has not asked me to talk at all about any part of the buying experience or anything like that—I was just legitimately very impressed. Customer service! AND the machines themselves? They work SO WELL. I’m thrilled with them in every way. In case you’re curious, this is the washer and this is the dryer.

2. Both plumbing and electric have been installed. SO EXCITING. This is another one of those things that feels like a really big improvement to our house, and that makes me happy. This house has NEVER had a dryer, and the old plumbing for the washer was tooootttalllly not to code and really old and just no good at all. This also means that the second half of demo-ing the downstairs bathroom went well. Post coming up soon.

3. I started tiling. Then I almost finished tiling. Spoiler: looks great; I’m very good at subway tiling now.

4. I installed the dryer vent. This involved cutting a 4-inch circular hole through the house, which was moderately stressful because I had to go through drywall, plaster, lath, brick, clapboard, styrofoam insulation stuff, and vinyl siding to reach the outdoors. But I did it and then I used some spray-foam insulation around it before closing it back up on the inside with a piece of drywall. Success!

SO. ALL THAT HAPPENED. And that’s not even what I want to talk about.

windowbefore

Remember that little window in the laundry room I talked about in my last post? Basically the deal is that the whole thing—window and surrounding casing—were installed very crooked and it drove me crazy. The rest of the room is surprisingly level, but this window sort of made everything look fun-house-y and sad and strange. The window is fairly small and doesn’t open, which is kind of a drag, but replacing it is just not at all in the budget, and trying to level the window itself seemed like potentially a HUGE project that would involve a lot of opening walls and causing general disaster and despair, and it really just didn’t seem worth it at all.

Back when we painted the room we also patched up and painted the casing, but now that we’re really renovating the room I started to have more ambitious ideas. The casing was obviously nothing special, so what about prying it off and trying to replicate the type of millwork that is original to this part of the house? And if I installed all of that level, maybe it would give the illusion of the window also being level.

Cool. Good Plan.

moldinginspiration

Here is the molding situation I wanted to try to copy. Fancy. From what I can tell, our house has three original different molding profiles, which are basically related to the fanciness of the room. This is the least fancy molding, used in the kitchen, the upstairs office, and adjacent original servant’s quarters which became the upstairs kitchen. It’s still pretty bulky and awesome, but the windows just have simple sills (instead of paneling detail to the floor) and the baseboards are this super simple shape.

Anyway. This door/window molding is basically 3 separate pieces: on the bottom there’s a 1×4 with that innermost detail routed out, then a fancy piece of trim molding, and the whole thing is encased in 1x2s. Seems simple enough.

The one complicating factor is that these moldings were made when lumber was still the actual listed dimensions (so a 1×2 is actually 1″ x 2″, not 3/4″ x 1.5″), so I had to get a little creative with my lumber selections. If I used the modern equivalents of the old lumber dimensions, things would looks sort of wimpy and wrong. Soooo…

1x2cutting

Luckily, Lowe’s sells a 5/4″ x 6″ board (actual dimensions = 1″ x 5.5″), which I could rip down to 2″ strips to make my dimensional 1 x 2. So that’s what I did.

stairtread

Luckily, Lowe’s also sells these long pine stair treads for about $10, which are the perfect thickness for old school window sills, AND have the necessary bullnose edge to match the original one upstairs. Dope. So far so good.

For the innermost piece, it wasn’t so hard to cut one of the 5/4″x6″ pieces of lumber down to an actual 1″ x 4″, but then there was the matter of the fancy routered detail on the inside edge.

I NEEDED NEW TOOLS. NEW TOOOOOLSSSSS!!!

router

BOOM hello router! You are lots and lots of fun and can do so many exciting things, like help me convincingly replicate old molding.

I’ve used a router maybe once or twice in my life, but its really a very easy tool to get the hang of. Along with my router (this one!), I also picked up a plethora of bits (these ones!). I basically just combined two bits to get the shape I needed. The first made the rounded edge, and the second cut a groove. Once it was all done and sanded, it looked pretty legit.

molding2

That little trim piece in the middle was just a stock piece I found at Lowe’s. I wish it was just a little more substantial and interesting, but it’s good enough. I can’t have EVERYTHING.

sillinstal

I’ll spare you all of the nitty gritty, but basically I wanted to install the sill first. This involved cutting down the stair tread, routing out part of the bottom, cutting away the sides, and using my router to chamfer the outer edges. Pretty fancy stuff. Then I installed it very level, using my handy level and lots of shimming magic. Then I installed everything else. It was relatively fun and relatively fast.

windowmolding

And there it is! I know it doesn’t look like much right now, but once it’s caulked up and painted, I think it’s going to be gooooood. I’m so happy with how it came out, and while the window itself is still crooked, the level casing really does completely distract from it in real life.

glamorshot

Glamor shot of the corner, just because it looks so damn profesh.

apron

If you’re very observant, you might note that the apron on this window is quite a bit longer than the one on the original window upstairs. I originally made an apron that small but it looked silly, so I pried it off and just eyeballed the proportions. I chamfered the outer edges with my router, like the original apron, and it looks…really good. It’s the little things!

So woodworking is fun and exciting and the window victory made me feel like I wanted to work more wood. I started to get all ambitious and stuff.

doormoldinginside

Part of the fun of this room is that at some point, the previous owner drywalled right over the original plaster and didn’t remove the door casing—meaning that the edge of this casing was basically flush with the drywall. It wasn’t a great look, but it would be an especially BAD look once I started tiling the walls. Additionally, I had ideas about the doorway. What if we added a door?

door

This door. I found it in the basement. It was covered in spiders. I braved spiders for this door.

I like this door because aside from being free, it has a big glass panel cut-out (no glass, though…so we’ll have to get something cut), which will still allow plenty of light to get through from the laundry room window into the kitchen but will still help the rooms feel like two separate places. The plan is to hang this door to swing in both directions (using this business from House of Antique Hardware).

This door is smaller than the opening between the kitchen and the laundry room. Rather than try to enlarge the door, I decided that the doorway between the two rooms was sort of big anyway and it made more sense to enclose it a little bit, thereby increasing the space for the machines.

Yeah. I made a doorway smaller. I’m so counterculture.

kitchenprogress

To do this, I had to pry off the molding on the inside of the laundry room (salvaged) and on the outside in the kitchen (plain new 1×6, not cute, not old). This was fun and exciting because the kitchen is basically renovated and nice and here I am destroying it again. WHY NOT, RIGHT?

doorwayshrinkage

Then I added some pieces of wood to the inside of the jamb to make it smaller, like so. The right side lost .75″, the top lost 1.5″, and the left side lost 1.75″. Nothing too drastic, but now the door should fit AND the slightly smaller proportions of the doorway fit the kitchen better. I’m happy with it.

Then I just milled myself a TON more wood, just like for the window but on a larger scale. I made door frames. I made baseboards. I made a LOT of sawdust.

doorframe

Here’s basically what the door frame looks like, but I still have to attach that middle piece of fancy trim molding to make it complete. Then patch, caulk, prime, and paint!

baseboards

Here’s the deal with the baseboards. It’s a subtle difference from plain 1×6 boards, but I really think it makes a big difference in this case. The gap between the tile and the baseboard will get caulked and everything will get patched and painted.

Here’s an idea of how it all kind of looks together! I think it was SO SO WORTH IT to take the extra time to really sort out the millwork situation in here before just slapping up the tile. Adding back some architectural detail to this space with moldings that look like part of the house is what’s going to really make it feel special and nice when it’s all done, and it makes me happy to make this room feel like it belongs.

Patching up the kitchen side of the doorway is a little more involved since I’m working around existing cabinets and tile and it entails some creative patchwork, but it’s going to look way better than it did before when it’s all finished.

It’s getting close! Next up is grout, caulk, paint, and some finishing details I’m pretty excited about, but right now we’re just THRILLED to have a working laundry set-up, even in a half-finished room. We’ve basically been washing things non-stop for days and it’s bliss.

This post is in partnership with Lowe’s!

How To Build A Simple Floating Desktop + Shelves!

shelvesdesk1

If you saw the big post about my office a couple of weeks ago (indeed, I am still talking about that…), you may remember that I promised a little tutorial for how I built the super simple floating desktop and shelves! I’m really proud of how these elements of the room turned out—they were very easy to construct, pretty inexpensive, and look and function exactly how I wanted them to. There isn’t anything particularly fancy about them, but I sort of like that—they’re clean and modern but still look a little homespun and handmade, which I think is kind of nice and appropriate for this modest room.

The basic construction of the shelves and the desktop is exactly the same: cleats underneath, a 3/4″ thick board on top, and a 1″x2″ piece of lumber glued and nailed to the front edge to give it the extra bulk, which serves both to hide the cleats and make them look a little more substantial and finished. See? Simple! Now I’ll make it complicated for you.

steps1

The most difficult part of the project is probably creating and securing the cleats onto the walls. Because I wanted the 1″x2″ board in the front to conceal the cleats, I had to make my own skinny little 3/4″ thick cleats to support the desktop and shelves. If that’s confusing, it’s probably because wood dimensions at the hardware store are a bit misleading—a 1″ thick x 2″ wide board is actually 3/4″ thick x 1.5″ wide. So, because only 1.5″ of wood would cover both the edge of the 3/4″ thick desktop and the cleat, the cleat could only be an additional 3/4″ without peeking out the bottom.

I probably just made that more confusing. Lesson: wood is smaller than the label says it is. Measure it if you’re unsure.

STEPS:

1. I used some scrap 3/4″ thick pine lumber and cut it into 3/4″ wide strips with a circular saw for the cleats. A table saw would have made things a little more precise, but I don’t have one! Then I used a miter saw to cut them to the right lengths. For the desktop I only made two cleats—one for either side, since I didn’t want to drill into the wallpaper. For the shelves I made 3 cleats for each shelf—both sides and the back. I made three equally-spaced pilot holes with an 1/8″ drill bit in each cleat, and then went back with a 1/4″ drill bit just to enlarge the top of each hole so that the screw heads would sink below the face of the wood (allowing me to fill and paint the holes later).

2. I used a level and a pencil to mark where I wanted the top of each cleat, and aligned the cleat with this line. I inserted a smaller drill bit through my pre-drilled holes and into the wall a bit, just to give myself the most accurate guide for where to drill my pilot holes for my anchors.

3. After drilling my three guide holes in the wall and setting the cleat aside, I went back to the guide holes and enlarged them with a 1/4″ drill bit, which was the size required by my plastic anchors. This will obviously vary based upon what type of anchor you use, but normally the package will specify what size drill bit is required.

4. There are lots and lots of different anchors on the market for different weights/applications/wall materials, but for plaster I generally find that regular plastic anchors work very well.  You should be able to insert the anchor into the hole nearly all the way with your hands, and then you’ll want to tap it flush with the wall with a rubber mallet or hammer.

screws

The anchors come with their own screws, but because the screw had to go through 3/4″ of wood, I needed longer screws to make up for it. Plastic anchors like these will interface fine with other types of screws, but you do want to make sure that the screws are the same (or a bit bigger, even) thickness. These #10 wood screws were as thick as the screws that came with the anchors, but the 2″ length gave me the length I needed to go through the wood and the anchor.

Note: obviously screwing directly into studs would give your project the most strength, but that isn’t always an option for applications this small. It can also be difficult to find studs in plaster walls because spacing may be non-standard and stud-sensors generally do not perform well with plaster & lath. Anchors such as these are typically rated to bear a certain amount of weight, so read the package and use your best judgment. These cleats are more than secure enough for shelves this small, even if they were loaded with books.

steps2

5. Insert the screws partway into the cleat with your screwdriver, then hold the cleat up to the anchors, align it, and drive the screws all the way in. Once all three screws are in, the cleat should be very securely attached to the wall.

6. This wasn’t really necessary, but I chose to patch over the screw holes with Ready Patch, sand, and paint the cleats with the same paint as the walls. It didn’t take very long, but I do think it looks a bit more finished to have the screw heads concealed and the cleats a bit more camouflaged.

7. Then it’s time to cut the shelves! I used 3/4″ thick x 12″ wide boards for the shelves and 3/4″ x 18″ wide for the desk. These boards were the big revelation of this project:

aspenpanel

I did not know that these existed, but at a magical land called Lowe’s, you can buy these fancy pants panels in all these different dimensions for cheap. The largest pine boards available are usually only 12″ wide (which is really 11.5″, remember…), and I really wanted the desktop to be a continuous surface rather than multiple boards butted up against each other with seams. These panels are really just a few pine boards joined together to make a bigger pine board, which isn’t necessarily all that fancy, but they do feel and function as a single piece, which is exactly what I wanted. I know that it’s obviously possible to join wood on your own, but I’ll leave that kind of woodworking time/effort/expense for someone else. For this, these panels were an absolutely perfect solution.

Because the walls are old and wonky, each shelf required its own special dimensions and finagling. I could have really gone all-out and made templates of each shelf and scribed everything and cut them to the exact crazy irregularities in the wall, but that just seemed like way too much effort to put into these little corner shelves that would be covered with stuff anyway. Once the 1×2 is nailed to the front, the fit really does look perfect and precise. After the shelves were in place, I nailed them into the cleats from above just to give them a little extra security.

supplies

8. To finish off the build, I just had to affix 1″x2″ select pine boards (I tried to buy the prettiest/straightest ones I could find at the store) to the front edge of the shelves/desktop. After cutting them to the proper lengths, I applied a line of wood glue to the 1×2, and held it up the the edge of the shelf with one hand and nailed it into place with the other.

I’d highly recommend a pneumatic nail gun for this part. It may not be totally necessary, but it does make it much easier to keep everything flush and positioned correctly. I have a Craftsman Evolv Air Compressor with 2 inch Brad Nailer, which is OK for stuff like this. I really liked this thing when I first got it about 6 months ago, and in all fairness it’s seen quite a bit of use in that time, but for some reason recently the PSI won’t go above 60 (which is the minimum working PSI)! I can’t seem to figure it out, other than to say that it just probably isn’t a very well-made piece of equipment. If all you’re ever doing with it is installing a little crown molding and base shoe it’s probably great, but I’m sure I’ll end up investing in something heavier-duty down the line—both because I’ll probably need bigger guns for bigger nails (and higher PSI) and because this one already seems to be failing, unfortunately. It is cheap, though. I’ll say that much!

ANYWAY. Once the 1×2 wood is attached, all you need to do is fill the nail holes with a little wood filler, wait for it to dry, and give it a little sanding, paying special attention to the wood filler! The panels and select pine should already be pretty smooth, but it doesn’t hurt to give them a few passes. I also drilled a 1.5″ hole in the back corner of the desktop for lamp/computer cords and sanded that smooth as well.

Then I just wiped everything down with a damp lint-free cloth and sealed with a satin water-based polyurethane! I have to say, I ALWAYS seem to get lazy and skimp on poly (or any finishing coat, really…), but I am publicly pledging to not do that anymore. I did 3 coats of water-based poly (sanding lightly with 220 grit sandpaper in between coats), and the finish feels so nice and smooth and durable and has a very pleasant sheen. I used water-based both because it dries fast and cleans up easily and because it won’t yellow over time. I really wanted to preserve the pale tone of the pine rather than risk yellowing it with an oil-based product.

deskafter

That’s it! The desktop and shelves probably cost all of about $85 in materials, which is just fine with me.

Cheap! Easy! Fun! Functional! Stylish! Huzzah!

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