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Revisiting the Big Kitchen Overhaul: Phase 1.5

newcountertops

As we get deeper and deeper into this whole home renovation/restoration exciting adventure thing, we’ve started to come around to a few basic truths. They aren’t really anything new—a collection of clichés about renovating, honestly—but somehow they never really registered before we were actually living it. Is everything dirty and filthy and dusty all the time, despite our valiant cleaning efforts? Yes. Is the renovation taxing on our relationship and friendships? You betcha. Is it more expensive than we anticipated and more time/energy-draining than we could have dreamed? Yup. It’s all true!

Learning this has prompted me to reevaluate some of the ideas I had at the beginning of all of this, especially those pertaining to the kitchen. The original concept was this:

1. The kitchen is unusable, unsafe, and super ugly.

2. Rather than tearing it all out, since we have neither the money nor a plan for how to replace it, let’s drop about $1,000 in the space on quick-n-dirty DIY repairs and cosmetic upgrades to make it cute and workable for something like the next 5 years.

3. Once this is done, renovate the rest of the house! NBD.

4. Once the rest of the house is looking and feeling fresh and fabulous, we’ll circle back to the kitchen, gut the whole thing, and redo it for real. No more crappy 50s cabinets and crappy 50s soffits. New layout with lots of prep space. Maybe an island. Maybe a couple  new windows. Lighting. New floor. Fancy pretty kitchen to go with our fancy pretty rehabbed house.

The first two items on the list seem more or less realistic, and it’s pretty much exactly what we did. The second two? Maybe a little overly-optimistic.

I think we’re going to be working on the rest of the house for a long time. And when it’s feeling done, or done-ish, or whatever, I’m going to go ahead and guess that we might want to take a little breather from things being so chaotic. Maybe we’ll move on to smaller things like restoring our windows. Maybe we’ll take a vacation. A lot of things could happen, but tearing apart a fairly functional and fairly good-looking room might not be high on the priorities list for a longgggggg time, no matter how tempting the potential for the space is. There’s also the whole matter of kitchen renovations being very expensive and money not growing on trees.

Accepting that this might be the only kitchen we have for QUITE a long time, and maybe as long as we own the house (who knows what could happen…), I’ve warmed up to the idea of throwing a little more money down to make some improvements to this kitchen. Kitchen Overhaul Phase 1 ended up leaving some things to be desired, which at first I was very hesitant to do anything about, but now that I feel like we’re in it for the longer haul…

oldcountertops

Remember when I made my own countertops last summer? Well. I used 2×12 Fir framing lumber (which had the right thickness but was soft and full of knots and SUPER labor intensive to sand down, since it’s framing lumber after all), which I joined with pocket holes and screws (using my Kreg jig). To achieve the right depth, each countertop had to be composed of 3 different pieces of lumber (2 full-sized pieces and one narrow strip in the back). They looked pretty good at first, and I was happy with them, despite wishing that I had better equipment and know-how to really join and plane the pieces and making them look and function as one continuous piece of wood.

First I sealed them with plain Mineral Oil and later on I coated them with some Danish Oil (note: not food-safe, but we didn’t use the countertops for cutting on…), but over time we found that the wood was really prone to staining, and quickly began to look dingy even after a thorough scrubbing, just as a result of all the debris being kicked up elsewhere (and carted through the kitchen to a Bagster in the backyard). Not cool.

countertopsbefore

On top of that, the wood warped, the gaps between the boards widened (meaning crumbs and rice and crap would have to be vacuumed out, and even then it just looked crappy and unclean), and one of the countertops sustained a large bleach stain, making the whole countertop situation basically no fun at all.

Nope. Nope Nope Nope. These countertops were not cutting it. It was a good and inexpensive experiment—I’m glad I tried it!—but it wasn’t faring well.

We thought about replacing the countertops in three ways:

1. Investing in actual butcherblock. While this would have been nice, unfortunately it looks like IKEA has discontinued the oak butcher block I used in the apartment, and the birch is out of stock, and I really dislike the faux-butcherblock replacement they’ve started selling. Sources like Lumber Liquidators also make butcher block, but it’s significantly more expensive than IKEA’s was. Both of these options also involve lots of additional costs like shipping or renting a vehicle to transport them, and it just wasn’t an option money-wise. Even if it were, I’d still be hesitant to install something so expensive and specific to this kitchen, and probably not reusable if/when we do tear it out down the line.

2. Revisit the original laminate countertops, which we still have. One of the ideas I had longggg ago was covering the original counters in a concrete finish I’d read about online. It appears all the bloggers are doing this now! It’s supposed to be relatively quick and easy and good-looking and durable. This was probably the cheapest option. BUT when concrete was on the table, that was also when I was considering a plywood plank wood floor, and I felt like replacing our countertops with concrete would make the room feel too cold and sterile and sad. It needs the warmth of the wood countertops, I think, to feel balanced and right.

3. Try another DIY option for cheap wood countertops. I’d just used these wonderful cheap pine panels for the desktop in my office, and to my great excitement they were available in a 24″ depth! So that’s what I did:

countertopwood

I went to Lowe’s and bought two of these! Then I went home, chopped them to size with my circular saw, screwed them in from underneath, face-nailed a 1×2 to the front and side, filled the holes, sanded, and applied three coats of water-based polyurethane. EASY-PEESY. And sooooooooo much better.

newcountertops2

Aside from being much better looking (I prefer the blonder tone of the pine, and they now match the little pine dowel knobs!), the poly resists water and staining like a champ. We still don’t cut on them (we have cutting boards and a small area of butcher block by the stove for that), so I think they’re kind of perfect! They also lowered the countertops about 3/4″, which in turn makes the tiling job look better since I had to start the tile at cabinet height instead of above the countertops because of the height of the upper cabinets. Win-win! I’m super happy with this solution, and only spending about $80 on new countertops felt reasonable. We might reuse the old ones as shelving in the pantry or something…I’m not sure yet.

fridge2

This is sort of old news, but we were also lucky enough to get a new fridge!! After about 7 years of use over at Door Sixteen, Anna decided to replace this large stainless steel LG fridge with an adorable little Smeg (which is perrrrrfection in her kitchen!), and the logistics of getting the old one out of her house were sort of complicated. As it happened, my parents had just sold my childhood home and were sending a moving truck of crap up to Kingston (some furniture, lots of boxes of my stuff, etc…) on the same day that Anna’s new fridge was arriving, so we asked the movers to make a quick pitstop in Newburgh to pick up the old fridge on the way! Anna very kindly refused to let me pay her for it, which is ridiculous, but I’ll take it!

(I forgot to retake the photos post-countertop-replacement, so you’ll have to use your imagination!)

oldfridge

There wasn’t really anything wrong with our old fridge, admittedly. It was about 10 years old and a totally fine, standard Frigidaire model, but we had space for a larger one and I wasn’t about to turn down a free upgrade.

fridge

This one is a bit newer, works beautifully, looks nice, has a few features that higher-end fridges tend to have, and sucks less power. I’ve never had a fridge with a bottom pull-out freezer, and I have to say I’m a total convert! It’s really nice to have the refrigerated section at eye level. I love it. (thank you, Anna!!)

We still have the old fridge (our friends encouraged us to put it in the basement and keep it for big parties and stuff, but as far as we got was moving it out to the mudroom), but I think we’re just going to try to sell it for a couple hundred bucks and see what happens.  I can’t imagine really needing it, and even a little bit of cash for it would be nice.

revashelf

Since we were on a kitchen improvement kick, we also made some upgrades to the base cabinets. The base cabinets in our kitchen had one half-depth stationary shelf, and organizing pots and pans and bakeware and appliances and whatever kind of immediately turned into a huge jumbled mess. It wasn’t a huge problem, but more like a day-to-day annoyance that made me feel shitty about the state of things. It was hard to find anything and hard to develop a good organizational system.

WELL. Lowe’s also sells these fabulous Rev-A-Shelf cabinet organizer things, which are terrific. It was easy to remove the half-depth shelf with a hammer (they were just nailed in with some side supports), assemble these drawers, and screw them into place. The whole thing took maybe an hour from start to finish. The Rev-A-Shelf components come in all different sizes to fit standard cabinet openings, and the quality is excellent and have completely made the kitchen feel a million times more organized and functional and easy to use. Outfitting 6 base cabinets with them (5 sets of drawers and one for pull-out trash and recycling) was definitely a splurge that I still feel a little funny about, but honestly? No regrets. They increase our storage space, and they really took the kitchen from feeling like “eh, good enough” to “wow, I could see myself cooking in here for as long as my heart/bank account desires.” They’re still cheaper and farrrrr less invasive than buying and installing new cabinets, but functionally do the same thing. I’m so happy with them, I can’t even stand it! Total organizational high.

hooks

After a lot of pestering from Max, I installed a few hooks to the right of the door to the mudroom for coats and dog leashes and whatnot. I took them from our closet upstairs, so they were free, and attached to the walls with some plastic anchors and black screws. They’re nice! They’re handy! They’re old!

I am getting reallllllly tired of looking at that faux-wood paneling and general despair through the door to the mudroom. I know it seems like we have a thousand projects on the go, but I’m so fed up with the mudroom that I might be bumping it up the priority list. It’s a big space (about 9′x10′!), and with a little TLC I think it would be perfect for tool storage and project building. The tool situation has kind of ballooned out of control and I’d really love to have one space to keep all of it—right now it’s scattered around the house, which is mega-impractical and inefficient and makes it impossible to keep organized. I keep setting up shop in other rooms in the house, which in turn gets sawdust and mess EVERYWHERE, and I want that to stop…particularly since we’re hoping to be renovating those other rooms soon. I don’t want to do this in the basement because it’s creepy, there aren’t any outlets, and I don’t want to impede access for plumbers/electricians, and I don’t want to do it in the garage because right now it’s literally FULL of construction debris and garbage (shammeeeeee) and it also would require a trip outdoors to get whatever I needed, and in the winter that’s going to be hugely annoying and uncool and hard to maintain. A garage workshop sounds nice someday, but not while we’re in full-on renovation mode, where we constantly need tons of tools on hand and ready for service. The mudroom definitely deserves its own horrifying post, but I’m starting to formulate a plan…which may or may not be realistic and may or may not be cute. We’ll see! It’s kind of a complete and total wreck and honestly might get torn down completely someday, but until that time I guess it makes sense to spend a weekend sprucing it up and making it a usable space.

ANYWAY.

Now that Kitchen Overhaul Phase 1.5 has seen us replace the faucet, the countertops, the fridge, add some much-needed organizational things, and a few hooks, I really feel settled in this kitchen for a much longer haul. Moving forward, I’d love to add a little sconce over the stove (I’m in love with the Radar Sconce from Schoolhouse Electric, and I think it would look great there…), and…get a new stove. I actually don’t mind the way this one looks AT ALL and it functions admirably well for a cheap appliance probably pushing at least 40 years old, but it seems like anything we put in the oven comes out charred and unevenly cooked, which kind of sucks. Now that we have a functioning gas line (we didn’t when we put this stove in, which we took from the now-defunct upstairs kitchen in the house), I’d really like to switch to a gas stove/oven. That’s definitely not happening now, but just maybe if I found something really discounted on Craigslist or something, it would be worth it.  I guess I’ll start looking, just in case…

I’m really glad we did all this stuff, especially since small-scale improvements like this can really increase the longevity of a space. I can stop obsessing about all the things I’d do if I had 20K to blow on a kitchen renovation, and move on to the stuff that really needs attention! Those ceilings aren’t about to drywall themselves!

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We Got a Dresser!

dresser1

A couple of weekends ago, Max and Anna and I hung out for a few hours down around Newburgh. We went to Anna’s mommy’s house to say hi and check out her beaaaauuutiful newly-refinished wood floors. Those floors are not the point of this post, but it kind of threw my floor-refinishing fantasies into overdrive. Our floors downstairs are a total mess, and I know they could be gorgeous refinished. Someday, floors. Someday. Anna’s stepfather, Bernie, said I could do it myself…which of course is giving me all kinds of ideas about my own abilities that I probably shouldn’t have. We’ll see.

Anyway. Then we went to lunch, and on the way back to Anna’s house, we stopped to check out the new Newburgh Vintage Emporium. I don’t usually buy anything from places like this since everything is usually out of my price range, but it’s fun to look. And then, toward the end—THIS DRESSER! I’ve been casually looking for a dresser since we bought the house (let’s just not talk about our clothing storage situation prior to this, cool?), and then I saw this one and it was all over.

dresser3

I think the dresser is probably early-mid 1800s (so about the age of our house!), but beyond that I don’t know tons about it! I love how simple it is, and I love how each drawer is a different size, and that each one has a keyhole and lock. We don’t have the key, but I don’t really care about that. I wish it was more apparent from the photos, but what really drew me to it was the size! This thing is HUGE. It has the proportions of a much smaller dresser, but it’s totally bulky and boxy and enormous.

At about $300 it wasn’t the best bargain in the world, but I still think it’s a good deal for a piece like this (I think similar ones tend to be more in the $600-and-up-range). The reason it was probably semi-affordable is that the knobs definitely aren’t original, which doesn’t really bother me. For me, that’s always been a realistic way to collect antiques—pieces that have non-original parts or have been repaired or refinished or altered aren’t as valuable as ones in totally original condition. If prices aren’t already lowered as a result, knowing what to look for and pointing out stuff like that can be a good negotiating tactic. The knobs on this dresser are just too pristine and stained too uniformly to be original, but I think the shape and size are kind of nice and they aren’t by any means offensive, so I’ll live with them for a while and maybe change them up down the line somehow.

dresser2

Isn’t it super great how the back legs are all un-fancy and just continuous with the side/back panels and the front legs are pretty turned wood? I think that detail sold me. I love this thing.

Other than the dresser, the bedroom looks pretty much the same as it did back when I posted about it in august. We had to pick up the rug because it was just getting too dirty with all the dust and debris getting tracked around the house all the time, and we’ve since stripped the walls almost completely down to the bare plaster—they were covered in wallpaper and layers of paint, all of which were peeling off the walls in large pieces. I know the plaster walls look fun and arty and beautiful and people will try to convince me to not repair, skim-coat, and paint them, but I swear it’s just the pictures. Parts of them (like the part behind the dresser, for instance) are in pretty great condition, while other parts are totally falling apart and a complete mess, beyond the point of doing small fixes that could blend in a good way. I also just really don’t think this is the house for bare plaster walls. Our friend John has some bare plaster walls in his house (sealed with some kind of varnish to keep dust under control), but his house is a 1725 Dutch stone house and beautifully rustic, where that look really works. Our house, by contrast, is kind of a modest Greek Revival, and I really think the house just wants to be simple and clean and bright. Maybe that sounds like crazy-talk, but I really feel like the house dictates what it wants to be, and it’s more or less my job to make that happen.

ANYWAY.

I still love the deco bed but I do feel like it’s totally out of scale with the dresser and kind of wacky in a bad way, but that’s OK at this point. Maybe it’ll become a guest bed someday. Maybe the dresser will go somewhere else. I know everyone really just wants to see a beautiful, put-together room, but that’s not really how my life works and therefore not really how this blog works. Right now, our attention (and money) is focused almost exclusively on renovating the house and maybe collecting pieces here and there that we really love, and I’m fine with that. We (like pretty much everyone…) have years to figure out how to mix and match our pieces and play around until things look right (or right-enough), and honestly that’s way more exciting to me than trying to do it all in one pass.

The bedroom is pretty low on the list of priorities right now, honestly, but it feels very exciting to finally have a place to store our underwear like fancy adults! Step in the right direction.

The Downstairs Bathroom.

After a couple months of stalking the listing online, the price on our house finally dropped and a few days later I worked up the nerve to call the listing agent to inquire about it. “It’s a great house,” she told me, “it needs some work, and the one big thing is that it does need a new furnace, but otherwise it’s a great, solid old house!” It was a nice chat. I set up an appointment to view it a few days later, and we were about to hang up when I asked. There isn’t really a delicate way to initiate these kinds of conversations, but I had a hunch that had been building for a while. “So,” I said, “did somebody die there or something?”

She paused, and then sighed. “Well, yes, the previous owner did die in the house, but it was of natural causes. He was old—it wasn’t anything violent or anything like that, I can assure you. It’s a really great house—I think you’ll like it.”

I suppose it’s possible that the death might have scared off a particularly superstitious potential buyer or two, but it seems rather unlikely. By today’s standards it might be a little alarming, but before the 1950s or so it was very common for people to both start and end their lives in their own homes. More than likely, he wasn’t the first person to die here—just the most recent. Sad? Sure. A little eery? I guess. But hardly cause for alarm. It was one of those details that stayed in the back of my mind, but I didn’t really fixate on it.

It was clear from our first walk-through that the house needed just a tad more work than the listing agent had let on during that first conversation. Little things like the roof and the unusable kitchen had apparently not been worth mentioning, not to mention the downstairs bathroom, which appeared to have had some kind of plumbing issue that left it literally crumbling, the tiles shedding from the walls like concrete from the Tappan Zee Bridge. For some reason it looked like the door, which was lying its side in the living room, had been ripped from the frame and forcibly removed.

before

“You’d want to redo this bathroom anyway,” she told us. “That back wall is shared with the laundry room, so you could knock it out and double the size. You’d have room for a walk-in shower or whatever you wanted!”

Obvious plumbing issues and cosmetic details notwithstanding, I loved this bathroom just as it was. It’s teeny-tiny—which I think is perfect especially for a downstairs bathroom—and the 1930s tub, sink, and toilet were all in relatively good shape, especially given their age and the condition of the rest of the room. It’s one of the spaces that I couldn’t wait to renovate and make usable again. It’s going to be so beautiful someday. Really. I promise.

One day the real estate agent called me with some good news. “I found out that the plumbing in that downstairs bathroom is fine, as far as we know. I spoke to someone from the clean-up crew and it turns out that the missing tiles were removed by them because they were unsightly.” Unsightly. I’ll never forget that choice of words.

“Is unsightly a euphemism for, like, covered in blood and human remains?”

She only laughed.

“OK, that bathtub has got to go,” Max announced when I told him about the conversation.

“Well, we don’t know that he died in the tub,” I explained. “He could have just, I don’t know, fallen in the tub, but managed to make his way back out again, or, well…we weren’t there. Anything could have happened. It’s a nice tub. I like that tub. They don’t make tubs like that anymore.”

“Yeah, but he probably died in the tub. We can buy a different old tub that someone didn’t die in.”

“But you’d never really know that nobody died in that tub, either. Somebody could have died in pretty much any used tub. How about we get it re-glazed and call it a day? It’s really the perfect size for that bathroom. We can’t just stick any tub in there.”

“I swear, I will never use that bathroom.”

“Fine. It’ll be my bathroom.”

“We’re not keeping that tub in the house.”

“We’ll see.”

This, by the way, is a fight that we haven’t stopped having for a year.

Knowing about the tub bothered me only slightly more than knowing about the death in the first place—which is to say, not very much. As far as causes of death go, dying in a bathtub is relatively unremarkable. The bathtub came up again once or twice more with our plumber during inspections, but otherwise nobody really mentioned it again until after we’d bought and moved into the house.

That’s when our neighbors began to introduce themselves. Apparently lots of people knew about the bathtub, or at least about the death, and Max was quick to forge fast alliances with whomever would listen about my plans to keep the tub. With the exception of maybe 2 people that I can think of, this news has been met unanimously with shock and disgust. “Well, it’s too small to really take a nice bath in, so it’ll really just be for showers,” is my general refrain. Historically, this has helped a total of nobody feel more comfortable with the idea.

“I’ve been an EMT for coming on thirty years, and I’ll tell you—when they opened up all the windows to your house, well, I’ve never smelled anything like that in my life. I’ll never forget it.” This was our neighbor Karen, who came by shortly after we moved in. According to her, the body had been there for a while. Maybe a month, by her professional estimation.

Once, as a teenager, at the height of the popularity of the CSI franchise, my twin sister and I attended a two-week summer class on forensic science. It was there that we learned about the Body Farm, a 2.5 acre plot of land in Tennessee dedicated to the study of the decomposition of human remains. Depending on the conditions and circumstances, lots of different things can happen to corpses over time: in hot and arid climates, for instance, a body left outside will essentially dry up and mummify, but in general they tend to decompose pretty much the same way. In essence, they liquify. In the case of our particular corpse, some percentage probably evacuated itself through the plumbing while the rest stuck around and marinated, waiting to be discovered—by who, we still don’t know.

When we first got to the house, my idea of a significant and readily available improvement to the downstairs bathroom was re-hanging the door, so that we could more effectively ignore it over the ensuing months and possibly years. We have a functioning bathroom upstairs, so there wasn’t any major rush to get it up and running.

Remember what I said about this bathroom sharing a wall with the laundry room, though? Well, that’s thrown kind of a kink in the plans. While we don’t particularly need a second bathroom, we really want a laundry room. The extent of our renovations elsewhere means a whole lot of dust and debris and general filth, and not being able to do laundry in our own house has quickly become incredibly annoying. We generally show up to the laundromat once every couple of weeks with four IKEA bags stuffed to the gills with dirty laundry, and the whole affair is just a big, moderately expensive hassle (those machines aren’t cheap!). The house came with a busted-up washing machine attached to some leaky exposed copper supply lines, but it wasn’t terribly useful since we didn’t have a hot water supply on the main floor until the installation of our boiler in November. Then, of course, the machine promptly died. There was never a dryer, and lacking the necessary electrical circuit and receptacle to install one (not to mention a dryer vent), we’re pretty much starting from scratch. Including having to run new electrical and plumbing through this bathroom wall. “Easy,” I told the plumbers. “I’ll just demo out this bathroom wall and we can get on with things.”

salvageable

This got me more excited about renovating the bathroom someday, because there’s already so much great stuff in it! Check out that hook! Check out that toilet paper dispenser! The sink is also really cute (it’s a little rusty in spots, so we’ll probably have it re-glazed). Normally I wouldn’t really think twice about replacing an old toilet with a new, modern, efficient one, but this one is so pretty that I even want to clean it up and keep it. There’s a painted-over transom window over the door, which I can’t wait to strip. I even love the medicine cabinet! I don’t know if I’ll keep it as a whole cabinet or just harvest the mirror, but I do quite like it. I think the radiator will probably go just because the room is so extremely small and I’d rather do something wall-mounted that could double as a towel warmer and free up the floor space just a little. The window is small but works in the room and has really beautiful textured glass that I didn’t take a picture of. And, of course, the corpse tub. Having all of this beautiful old stuff already here, combined with the tiny size (small room = fewer materials!), makes me feel like we could probably renovate this room fairly inexpensively, even with new plumbing and electric.

ANYWAY.

Picking up where the Crime and Trauma Scene Contamination crew left off, I donned some work gloves and a respirator and started to peel back and dispose of the old tiles surrounding the bathtub and the drywall underneath.

clapboard3

Whats that now? Clapboard? Peekaboo!

So, apparently this used to be an exterior wall. Which made very little sense to me, considering where this room is located. Here I will refer to my floor plan:

FIRST-FLOOR-BEFORE

The bathroom to which I am referring is #10 and highlighted in pink for ease of identification. The laundry room is #9. The wall I am talking about is what divides the two.

At first I thought the laundry room was just a later addition, but then I realized that didn’t make any sense because the clapboard I was uncovering was the exterior, not the interior. Huh.

clapboard4

Further excavation revealed that the wall was definitely clapboard. The walls—which were partially drywall but mostly the same lightweight “beaverboard” used elsewhere in the 20th century “improvements”—were hanging on old 1×2 furring strips which were nailed to the clapboard. Well. Isn’t that special.

Something tells me that this will not be a great strategy when we renovate this bathroom for real. Old furring strips nailed to really old clapboard is probably not going to be so great or so safe for holding up hundreds of pounds of cement backerboard and tile. I kept moving…

demo2

Turns out, the whole room is clapboard, except for the actual exterior wall that the window and sink are on. Underneath the beaverboard ceiling is a tongue-and-groove beadboard ceiling!

I have deduced, therefore, that this bathroom used to be a small porch. Nifty! It occurs to me that this is probably why the upstairs bathroom actually has older fixtures (like that amazing sink, and the toilet that we unfortunately had to tear out on our 3rd day in the house)  than the downstairs one—because it’s older! The top of the toilet tank has a date stamp from 1935, which makes a lot of sense. We know that the house was originally split up into two units in the mid-30s (the Great Depression did that to a lot of houses, and we’ve found newspaper listings for the second floor apartment from 1938), so it was then that they enclosed the porch, then basically built a whole room inside the porch, and BOOM—bathroom.

You can’t really tell from these pictures, but all of this was also covering up an old doorway opening from the kitchen onto the porch. Crazy! Obviously, I think all of this is super cool. Like uncovering a time capsule.

clapboard

bricks

Unfortunately, because these are originally exterior walls and this is my house, it also means that underneath the clapboard, the walls are stuffed full of bricks and mortar. Yep. This is called “nogging” and is how our whole house is “insulated”—I put it in quotations because it has an R-value of less than 1. It was done in a lot of houses especially in the northeast in the 19th century, both as a primitive form of insulation and as a way to keep mice and rats from getting into houses. Normally nogging is composed of “garbage bricks”—like ones that were broken or misshapen or not fired at the correct temperatures. It fell out of practice toward the end of the 19th century. It’s not structural, so it can be removed, but obviously access is pretty much impossible without ripping down all the plaster on interior walls or all of the clapboard off the exterior walls. This is why I just laugh when people try to talk to me about doing blown-in insulation, like I’ve never heard of the concept. I KNOW IT’S A THING. IT IS NOT A THING FOR US. 

nogging

Obviously, this also makes it impossible to run new electrical or plumbing through the walls, which is sort of important in modern bathrooms. So basically this means that all of the stuff nailed to the clapboard has to come out, then the clapboard has to come down, and then the wall cavities have to be emptied out. Yikes! I’m not sure I can totally wrap my mind around carrying and transporting this literal ton of bricks, but at least I am young and strapping and willing to pretend that my home renovation doubles as an acceptable exercise routine, since I can’t seem to make it to the gym.

Before anyone tries to get in my face about preserving the clapboard, ask yourself this: do you want a clapboard-covered bathroom? Like, really, in real life? No you do not. We will, however, save the salvageable clapboard, which may come in handy when we get to work on the exterior and rip off the vinyl siding. We’ll also save salvageable bricks, which I have lofty ideas about repurposing when we get to work on landscaping. It’ll be great.

floor

Oh! And I pulled up the hideous faux-terrazo linoleum and the plywood underneath it, and look! The same hardwood flooring (which we think is fir! not oak, as I had originally thought…) runs into the bathroom, too! I wasn’t really expecting that, but it’s kind of cool. I have no idea if this floor will end up being worth salvaging (there are some areas of rot and holes from old plumbing and a million nail holes from the plywood, and the total floor area is super small anyway…), but it does make me think about putting a wood floor in the bathroom instead of tile when we eventually renovate. Stained black? I like the idea of that. It feels a little less sterile than tile, which I think is nice for the main floor.

demoafter

This has to be the most grueling bathroom demo in the history of mankind. It’s gutted, and now it essentially has to be gutted AGAIN. And then the BRICKS. MADNESS.

It’ll be worth it if we get laundry, though. Eyes on the prize.

Home Buying Moment: Oh No, What Have We Done? The First Year of Owning and Updating an Old House.

I am blogging on behalf of Trulia, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Trulia’s. To learn more, visit: http://on.trulia.com/postcards.

I was raised primarily on a diet of HGTV and TLC, back when TLC used to produce shows like Trading Spaces, where for $1,000 and the chance to be on TV, a stranger might give you a tasteful new living room or intentionally pour bags of sand onto your basement floor, depending on the episode. Later in life I became enamored with the endless teachings of the Sovereign Queen Goddess Martha Stewart. At some point I discovered the Internet and found all of these kooky people blogging about their home renovations online. I casually studied architecture in college. And…that’s pretty much the start and end of my qualifications to own and renovate an old house. I grew up in new construction, and aside from some things I’d picked up here and there, I had no idea what I was doing. 

Now that we’re coming up on a whole year of homeownership (that just flew by, didn’t it?), the folks at Trulia asked me to take part in a series they’ve put together about the most defining home buying moments—from making compromises to finding the right neighborhood to making an offer. For me, one of the biggest moments maybe wasn’t even really a moment at all, but more a sense of panic and impending doom about how little we knew in relation to how much had to be done. Both before and after we bought the house, there was just so much we didn’t know. It was completely terrifying. I had no idea how people bought houses. I had no idea I needed a lawyer. I had no idea what a boiler was. The thing I kept having to remind myself (and keep having to remind myself a lot of the time) is that knowing that you don’t know how something works is usually way scarier than finding out. This stuff isn’t rocket science. Once the mystery is removed from so many aspects of homeownership—from financing to renovating—they generally become way more approachable and easier to handle.

With that in mind, I thought I’d put together a more comprehensive post about some of the things I’ve learned in the first year about upgrading an old house, and maybe offer up some suggestions that we’ve taken advantage of (or tried to) to make it a little less daunting both mentally and financially. We have a ton of work ahead of us and I don’t think the learning process will ever end, but the house is still standing and we aren’t completely broke (yet!), so I guess we’re doing OK. Every house is different and comes with a different challenges, but a lot of what we’ve done in this first year is pretty typical of older homes. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

house

BEFORE YOU BUY

Our “house-hunting” story is so short it’s laughable. We weren’t looking for a house, or even thinking about buying one. But then we found one—on a weekend away from Brooklyn while staying at a house that our friends had rented around the corner in the Hudson River Valley city of Kingston, NY—and became completely obsessed with it in a way that’s honestly hard to describe. For us, this was never about buying a house—it was about having the opportunity to take care of this house, specifically. I loved everything about it: the original layout of beautifully-proportioned rooms, and all of the original features like moldings and doors and windows and plaster walls and radiators and even a beautiful marble fireplace mantel. And, honestly, I was attracted by how much work it needed. It was split up very awkwardly into two apartments, and we felt passionate about restoring it to a single family home and renovating it in a way that would be careful, deliberate, and respectful of its history. And even though the attachment I felt to the house was completely absurd and illogical, and that we didn’t really feel like we were in any position to buy a house, we both felt like we had to at least explore the option. If we never took that first leap to find out and it had eventually sold to somebody else, I honestly believe that I’d still be obsessing over it now. And probably five years from now. Maybe ten years. Maybe forever. I was in love with the house from the second I saw it, and immediately felt responsible for it even though it wasn’t ours. I know that might sound like overly-romantic nonsense, but it’s the truth.

All of this was basically driven by insanity is what I’m saying. But with old houses, that’s kind of important. Upgrading and renovating isn’t easy—emotionally, financially, socially, you name it—and I think you need to be a little nuts and a little obsessed to feel, at the end of the day, that you’re doing the right thing. And that you need to keep doing it.

Still, we weren’t complete idiots, and it certainly wasn’t as easy as just wanting it a whole lot. We had to think carefully about whether we were up for the challenge, and whether it seemed like a sound investment. If things went horribly awry, could we put it back on the market and walk away relatively financially unscathed? Could our relationship and lives sustain such a big upheaval? We felt like the answers were yes, but at that point there was just a lot of gut-trusting, blind passion, and leaps of faith. Those types of questions don’t really come with easy or simple answers. They still don’t some days, but that’s a whole different post.

While the process of buying the house was, as usual, incredibly stressful and time-consuming and intense and full of surprises outside of anyone’s control, it actually wasn’t as horribly difficult to navigate as I thought it would be. Our real estate agent was also the seller’s agent (the “seller” was an estate, the members of which all lived elsewhere…the previous owner of our house passed away a couple of years prior). She gave us lots of support and guidance throughout the process, and was invaluable for recommending home inspectors, local contractors, local lawyers, etc., and taking us through all the steps of making an offer, securing a loan, contingencies, and all of that. This is the part of the process when you receive the most support and guidance, so use it! Ask TONS of questions about anything you’re unsure about. Agents are smart people. They know lots of things.

Aside from the expertise of your real estate agent, the most informative aspect of the pre-sale shenanigans is the inspections. You’ll probably get lots of inspections.

Because we felt very serious about the house, we hired a home inspector to come for our first walk-through.

I should note, I suppose, that all of this basically goes against traditional wisdom of home-buying. The seller’s agent, by definition, has the seller’s best interests at heart, and showing up for an initial walk-through with a home inspector basically lays all of your cards out on the table: we want this house—badly. But for us, I think it was a good thing. The seller’s agent was clearly excited about us and our evident infatuation with the house, and I truly believe that the genuine relationship we built with her really stacked the deck in our favor as we moved forward in the process.

ANYWAY—back to inspections. Typically realtors will have recommendations for a good home inspector, who will walk through the property and take note of any visible problems. Ours cost about $500. Inspectors are a great wealth of information, and should be able to answer all sorts of questions, bring up and discuss issues that they see, and even give ballpark estimates of how much certain repairs might cost. Of course, you should always verify these estimates with contractors, but it’s helpful to get a sense of whether the property is even worth pursuing further. The home inspector should prepare a detailed written report, which will not only be helpful for your own reference, but will often be essential information for insurance companies and banks. If the inspector notes things that were not disclosed or noted by the seller or seller’s agent, these might be helpful points to negotiate on the price. Based on what we gleaned from our home inspection and how long the property had been on the market, we felt comfortable submitting an offer of about 20% below asking price—which after some back and forth as various estimates came in is exactly what we ended up paying.

Assuming the home inspector’s report doesn’t leave you running away screaming, you’ll want to have a few more inspections and estimates to get an idea of what you’re looking at financially. In addition to a pest inspection to check for wood-destroying insects (which homeowners should ideally have done annually—I think it was about $100) which came up clean, we also walked through the house with both a locally licensed plumber and a locally licensed electrician. Both of these contractors should also be able to point out causes for concern, and help you formulate a list of probable repairs and upgrades you’ll need to make after closing. They should then provide written estimates for the anticipated work. For us, it was helpful to talk through best-case and worst-case scenarios with both of these contractors and get estimates for both. We also had three roofing contractors come to give estimates on replacing the faulty roof. All of this was free, and we’ve since used both the plumber and the electrician for all of our work—they’re great guys, and they’ve been with us since the beginning.

You may want to do additional inspections for radon, lead, and asbestos. This is kind of personal and kind of based on the house and location. Our house is almost 200 years old—it definitely has lead-based paint, and it does have asbestos in the typical places (like around some of the heat pipes in the basement), so testing for them was sort of a pointless expense. Both lead and asbestos do not present a hazard as long as they’re left undisturbed and intact, so there isn’t really any reason to invest in full-on lead or asbestos abatement in most cases.

Again, all houses are different, but at this point everyone should have a fairly comprehensive idea of what the house needs. You’ll have to figure out a loan and insurance and go back and forth endlessly on whether you can really afford it and there will generally be a lot of freaking out for weeks or months on end. You’ll sign a lot of things and feel like you’re throwing large amounts of money around willy-nilly and it will be insane and scary…and then you’ll get the keys. The whole team of people who helped you get to this point will give you a pat on the back and congratulations and then they’ll disappear into the ether and you have to start really figuring stuff out.

GENERAL UPGRADES

Aside from the fun and exciting cosmetic stuff that makes for entertaining blogging fodder, there were a few things that we needed to take care of ASAP:

1. Locks! If the existing locks are nice and new-ish, you can have a locksmith re-key them. We replaced all of ours with new, very secure ones. Prices obviously vary based on quality and whatnot, but our lock upgrade was about $120 per door, including the labor of the locksmith.

2. Security! While a home security system certainly isn’t mandatory, it gave us a significant amount of peace of mind to have one installed. Again, prices will vary based on what company you go with and what kind of equipment you use, but our system was about $800 in equipment, plus a monthly service bill which is about $60. Installing a central station security system and smoke detectors (meaning that if they trip, the police department or fire department are automatically called) also got us a nice discount on our homeowner’s insurance. Home security systems come in both wireless and hardwired options now, so it isn’t horribly expensive or invasive to have one installed if the house isn’t wired for it!

3. Smoke/Carbon Monoxide Detectors! Our house came with one smoke detector and one carbon monoxide detector. That’s not enough! At least in New York State, residences must have one smoke detector in each bedroom, one in each common area on every floor, and one in the basement. There also needs to be a carbon monoxide detector in the basement and on any level where there are sleeping areas. Unless you are building new construction or doing significant renovations like completely gutting a house, battery-operated or plug-in smoke/carbon detectors are OK. Nicer smoke/carbon detectors are about $50 each.

THE ROOF

 roofbeforeafter

It’s often said that the roof and the foundation are the most important parts of a healthy house, and it’s true! Our roof was kind of a mess—a mix of sheet metal and metal shingles, all covered in layers of tar. The age and condition of the roof can make securing a homeowner’s insurance policy and a mortgage difficult, and basically we had to have it replaced ASAP. We got three estimates months before, but estimates are generally only valid for 1-3 months, so we had the same companies come back to give us new quotes after we closed. The new quotes were much, much higher than the original quotes, for lower quality materials no less! It was awful. I resented the companies so much that I didn’t even want to try to negotiate and work with them. I did find out some good stuff because of it, though!

1. Big-box hardware stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot subcontract all sorts of work to local contractors (siding, windows, etc), including roofing! The difference between going through a place like Lowe’s and directly to the contractor might seem insignificant, but it isn’t: the big box store pricing is regulated, so they can’t arbitrarily jack up the price just because they think you can pay more. Even if you don’t end up hiring them, I highly recommend getting an estimate from Lowe’s, if only so that you have a baseline idea of what a fair price is for the job. The estimate is free, and I found them great to work with. I could easily dedicate an entire post to roofing (maybe I will—are you interested?), so I’ll move on…

2. Because roofing is significantly expensive, bigger roofing companies often offer financing plans for the job—so even if it’s more expensive than you were anticipating or have cash on hand for, you may be able to work something out directly through the company. Additionally, Lowe’s offers a consumer credit card with low-interest extended payment plans, and they’ll work with you to increase your credit limit to cover the cost. Roofing prices vary drastically by the size of the house, the materials, and the scope of the job, but the point is this: get lots of quotes, ask for references, and remember that you don’t necessarily need to have $10,000+ in your pocket to pay for it. Even if you have a great home loan with a comfortable renovation budget (or just a bunch of money in the bank), you still may want to consider financing stuff like this separately if you’re comfortable taking on another monthly payment, especially if you have lots of work ahead of you. Surprises (like rotted box gutters!) happen!

ELECTRICAL

Admittedly, electrical issues are one of the most intimidating parts of even thinking about buying an old house. A lot of people think that they need to have every last bit of wiring removed and replaced immediately, but in general that isn’t the case at all! Knob and tube wiring is generally considered a real hazard and should be removed, but “newer” types of wiring are often in fine shape, even if they’re very old. Even if the outer casing on old wires looks cracked or frayed inside an electrical box, remember that the ends have been exposed and messed with since their original installation, and the stuff going through the walls is probably in much better condition. A good, honest electrician should be able to give you a sensible evaluation of the age and condition of your wiring, and the urgency of replacing it. The advice from our electrician was basically to replace what we could, when we could—but no hurry. Still, there are some things to know…

1. Outlets! Lots of old houses will have ungrounded two-prong outlets. Obviously the modern standard is 3-prong grounded outlets, and having two-prong outlets everywhere gets annoying really fast. Consult your electrician about upgrading the outlets—in many cases, two-prong outlets can be swapped for 3-prong simply by grounding the new outlet to the metal box, or replacing it with a GFCI receptacle. GFCI receptacles are fairly expensive (about $30 each), but a basic grounded outlet is really cheap—like $1, a bag of grounding tails is something like $7, and a receptacle tester to make sure everything is wired correctly is like $3-4. This kind of thing is within the abilities of any normal homeowner with a little research, or your electrician might charge you $10-$20 an outlet to do it for you. Not a huge deal.

breakerpanel1

2. Main Electrical Panel! Lots of old houses have scary old service panels. Both fuses and circuit breakers are pretty much equally safe when operating effectively and wired correctly, but your electrician and home inspector should know which types of panels to watch out for. Our house was split into two apartments, so there were 2 separate breaker panels. One was fairly new-ish, and the other was an old Federal Pacific panel with Stab-Lok circuit breakers—which has pretty much been a known fire hazard for about 30 years because so many of the breakers were defective. Yikes! Luckily, replacing a service panel isn’t a huge deal, either. Existing wiring can be removed from the old panel(s) and tied into a new one. Along with a few assistants, our electrician had the whole job done in less than a day, and it cost $1,400.

service

3. Service to the panel! A very, very typical upgrade to old houses is actually increasing the overall amount of electricity running to the house—usually from 60 or 100 amps to 200 amps. As times have changed, as have our electrical needs, so many old houses are just under-electrified and not equipped to handle all of the things that we expect to use electricity for (appliances, computers, lighting, A/C units, etc. etc.). Included in upgrading the panel was also upgrading our service from 100 amps to 200 amps—meaning that not only do we have a new huge panel with more space for new circuits than I think we could possibly ever use, but enough electricity running into the house to power it all. It all runs through a fancy new grey PVC pipe, through a new meter pan, and into the new breaker panel in the basement.

servicedrop

3. New Service Drop! The electrician is only allowed to work on electrical from the point of attachment (where the power line attaches to your home) downwards, however. So even after we had our panel and the wires feeding it upgraded, the wires from the pole to the house were still ollldddd. I think we were the last house on the street still rocking uninsulated triplex wire! I called the utility company to find out how to get that wiring replaced, and it only took them a couple of weeks after the electrician submitted some paperwork for them to come out and replace it. As far as I know, in most places this is a free service, assuming the utility company also deems your service drop outdated and in need of replacement.

PLUMBING

 plumingdisasters

1. We dropped about $1,300 right off the bat on fixing various plumbing issues: buying and installing a new toilet, replacing leaky valves and a large section of the waste line—that kind of thing. The house had been drained while it was vacant, but extreme temperature changes are still very hard on old plumbing, even when there isn’t water in them. Cracked sections of cast iron pipe can be patched in with new PVC. Where we’ve had to replace plumbing, in general we’ve replaced with PVC for waste lines and PEX for supply lines, which is much cheaper than copper (and, supposedly, lasts longer and is less prone to damage).

boiler

2. New Boiler! The biggest plumbing issue (and headache…) we had to deal with was the heat system. The house had a very, very old oil-powered boiler, but the oil tanks had been removed and remediated by the estate prior to sale (note: if there are oil tanks on the property, those should also be inspected for leaks prior to buying. You do NOT want to deal with remediation!). The cast iron hot water radiators seemed to be in fine shape, but they would need a new boiler to make them actually radiate heat. Because natural gas is much cheaper and cleaner than oil and natural gas boilers are more efficient, we decided that the smartest thing we could do was to convert our heat system to natural gas. Luckily, Central Hudson currently has a gas conversion program specifically for homeowners looking to convert from oil to natural gas, but do not have current gas service. Running gas from the main to the house is essentially free (you do have to pay a $500 deposit, but it gets returned after your equipment is installed), but would normally cost a few thousand dollars without the program. I’m guessing this sort of program is happening in a lot of places, though, so definitely check with your local utility company if you’re interested in doing something similar!

From there, it was a matter of installing the new boiler—which, thankfully, ended up doing double-duty as our tankless hot water heater for the whole house. It’s worked out great, by the way. This is another very expensive upgrade, but prices vary significantly based on the type of equipment used, the plumber, and the size of the system (our house is about 2,400 square feet and we have 11 radiators). Our upgrade came in at just about $12,000—which is a whole lot of money. But at least in New York, there are rebate programs in place for installing high-efficiency equipment, so we actually got about $1,500 back after our plumber submitted the paperwork.

But, again, this isn’t necessarily something you need cash on hand for. Central Hudson’s gas conversion program has its own financing, and local banks and credit unions also often offer home heating loans. Additionally, New York State has NYSERDA—the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which is geared in part toward helping homeowners understand and finance energy-efficient upgrades to their homes. I didn’t find out about this until it was too late (impending winter really put a deadline on the boiler replacement!) but it’s a great program: starting with a free home energy assessment, working through the program may qualify you for cashback incentives, special financing, or even grants to help pay for the upgrades. I definitely plan to get an energy assessment through NYSERDA soon, and I’m hoping it helps us make other energy-efficiency upgrades more affordable!

PHEW. I could probably go on and on and on forever, but those are the major things we’ve encountered and had to learn alllll about in our first year of homeownership! It’s not all flowers and rainbows and fun, but that’s OK. Even in moments of panic and uncertainty, I still completely love our house, I love Kingston, and I’m really happy that we’re doing this.

If you’ve bought an old house, I’d love to hear what you can add to this list! And if you’ve bought a house at all, what are some of your most memorable home buying moments? If you need to jog your memory, cheek out all the home buying moments postcards!

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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