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How to Build Your Own Vintage-Style Cabinets

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

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

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

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

OH RIGHT, I HAVE LIMITATIONS! For instance:

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

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

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

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

STEP 1: PICK A STYLE!

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

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

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

STEP 2: MATERIALS SELECTION!

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

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

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

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

STEP 4: PRIME!

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

STEP 5: CUT YOUR PIECES TO EXACT SIZE!

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

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

STEP 5: DRILL YOUR SHELF PIN HOLES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STEP 7: DRY FIT!

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

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

STEP 8: ASSEMBLE THE BACKING!

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

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

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

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

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

STEP 9: MAKE THE BASES!

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

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

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

STEP 10: INSTALL THE BASE CABINETS

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

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

STEP 11: INSTALL THE UPPERS!

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

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

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

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

Also, hi Mekko. Smooth photobomb.

STEP 12: ASSEMBLE THE FACE FRAMES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STEP 13: BUILD AND INSTALL THE SHELVES!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall Checklist: DIY Spray Foam Insulation with Dow Froth-Pak!

This blog mini-series is a paid partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

If you’ve read the title of this post and are thinking it’s already winter, then meteorologically yes, you’d be correct. BUT NOT ACCORDING TO ASTRONOMY, which places the first day of winter on December 21st this year, so take that! We’ll now move forward with the premise that it’s still fall and I’m right on schedule with wrapping up a semi-gargantuan to-do list of time-sensitive projects I really wanted to accomplish before this winter—at which point I will…uh…keep working, but on different stuff. Fun stuff. I’m excited for this winter stuff.

So. Having taken care of some overdue work like overseeding my grass, planting shrubs, pressure washing filthy siding, securing my garage/personal lumber yard, and wrapping up the major outstanding work on the side of the house, I’m turning my attention back toward the inside of the house. And there was a pretty major, glaring issue that I’m a little ashamed to admit. Behold:

It’s literally been YEARS since we’ve talked about it, but maybe you remember this room above my kitchen? It’s been through a lot…maybe this will jog your memory? Behold, again:

When I bought this house, it had been divided into two apartments and this room served as the upstairs apartment’s kitchen. I wrote about the preliminary demo work all the way back in 2013…and then evidently didn’t mention it again except in the context of the exterior work which involved removing the door and the window and replacing them with two little casement windows—an approximation of what I think that back wall originally looked like.

Anyway. At some point in there, I gutted the whole room. Part of one wall had been lost early on to a plumbing issue. Another wall because of the new window arrangement. The rest of the walls and ceiling were a material probably installed in the 1930s called Celotex, which is generally used as a rigid insulation board rather than a finished wall surface, but I digress. It all had to go—nothing original left anyway. Unlike the rest of the house, this section is 1 1/2 story—meaning there’s no attic above this room, and no reason the ceiling can’t be vaulted up to the ridge. Sweet!

Except…that was approximately 3 years ago. And aside from becoming a dumping ground for random crap (what else do you do when your mom sends you boxes of stuff you thought had long since been disposed of from your childhood bedroom?), it’s just sat that way. A shell full of potential, but not even approaching the top of any priority list.

Do you spot a problem here? I’ll give you a big hint that’s literally in the title of the post: NO INSULATION. I LIVE IN UPSTATE NEW YORK, PEOPLE. HEAT IS EXPENSIVE AND IT GETS COLD COLD COLD. WHAT A BAD CHOICE.

Seeing as this uninsulated room also became an unheated room as a result of other work, and therefore basically a barn atop my kitchen, this has meant a frigid kitchen below and the necessity of a space heater up here in the winter to prevent the pipes from freezing, as my bathroom is on the other side of one of the walls. Lest you feel like that’s overkill, I initiated this program only after the pipes had already frozen.

Twice.

Now, I’m no energy efficiency expert (SURPRISE!), but this much I know. Hot air rises. Insulation keeps it from rising up and out of the house. I chose not to insulate between floors in my house (a subject of some debate in the renovation world), meaning that any heat from my kitchen/first floor rises up into this room, and then promptly out the walls/roof and away into the sky. You know that emoji of the flying stack of money? That’s kind of what I’ve come to picture emerging from my roofline around this time of year.

If you’ve worked on an old house, you’ve likely encountered the issue of insulation at one point or another. There are many options out there, each with their own pros and cons, but one that’s been gaining major traction for the last couple decades is closed-cell spray foam insulation. There are a lot of great things about it—it’s efficient, fairly quick to install, provides a vapor barrier, and even improves the structural rigidity of a building. That last aspect dovetails nicely with the fact that it fills irregular gaps and areas in an existing structure that might be difficult to access/fill with more traditional products like fiberglass bat. Old houses tend to have both weird areas like that and structural components that may not necessarily be a problem but also wouldn’t meet modern building standards, so the added structural strength—while it shouldn’t be relied upon to resolve an actual structural issue—is a nice bonus. To my knowledge, closed-cell spray foam application has always been the purview of professional installers, but now there’s an option for the ambitious homeowner or budding professional too! That’s me!

We are talking specifically about the Dow Froth-Pak system, available at Lowe’s! Right off the bat I want to make clear that this stuff is SERIOUS BUSINESS—while this post is intended to help others and share my experience, you absolutely must read the manual that comes with the kit, take all necessary precautions, and research anything you feel uneasy about before trying this at home. Don’t be stupid, basically. Let’s dive in.

When I first saw this product, I didn’t totally know what to make of it. Is it closed cell or open cell? Can someone like me even use it? Is it just a big version of those cans of Great Stuff? Can I do a whole room? A whole house? What is a board foot??! I will try to address all of these things, because there isn’t a ton of information online about it in one place.

EVALUATE YOUR PROJECT

So you’re thinking of using Dow Froth-Pak to meet an insulation need. There are a few things to consider.

  1. How much area are you trying to cover? My room is about 13′ x 16′, with a vaulted ceiling about 10′ at the peak. Two of those walls are exterior walls that need to be insulated, as well as the whole ceiling. I haven’t excluded windows in that calculation, which is my lazy way to round up when figuring out what I need plus accounting for some waste. I think this product is good for a situation like mine—where you need to do ONE room or ONE ceiling or something like that, or you want to seal up areas like where floor joists meet the rim joist over a foundation in an entire basement. If the project is bigger than that, I’d definitely recommend at least quoting the job with a professional spray foam installer—it may actually be less expensive than buying the amount of kits you’d have to buy, and obviously save you some serious, potentially hazardous work.
  2. Is there a product better suited to your needs? There are several compelling reasons to choose spray-foam insulation—but fiberglass bat, blown-in cellulose, or a number of other products may help bring costs down. In my case, I have irregularly spaced studs, meaning variably sized stud cavities, as well as a lot of weird shapes and angles  (due to post-and-beam construction and the vaulted ceiling) that would make installation of other products difficult. Obviously insulation works best when it achieves good coverage, and all of the irregularities with my framing would leave opportunities for lots of gaps and cracks with a product that can’t easily adapt to the shape of its space.
  3. Are you up for it? If you’re not one for following directions or reading warning labels, avoid this. It’s not technically difficult but it can be somewhat physically demanding and messy. You also need to be at the proper stage of your project—which is AFTER framing work (including adding nailers or furring!), rough electric and rough plumbing are done. If you aren’t ready to put up drywall, you aren’t ready for spray foam insulation.

CALCULATE THE AMOUNT OF PRODUCT YOU NEED

  1. Dow Froth-Pak is closed-cell insulation, created by combining the contents of two tanks. One difference between closed-cell and open-cell spray foam is the thickness you want to spray. Open-cell spray foam is less dense, so you can fill a stud cavity and cut away the excess before installing your finished walls. Closed-cell is denser (with a higher R-value) and ideally should be a bit recessed in the stud bay—it can be cut back, but it’s more difficult. The amount of product you need will depend on the thickness you want to achieve. Each inch of thickness creates about R-6. So two inches = R-12, three inches = R-18, and so on. Local building code may require a minimal R-value depending on where you’re installing—always check.
  2. Calculate your BOARD FEET. The Froth-Paks come in different sizes—to make it simple, let’s look at the Froth-Pak 210. The “210” refers to the number of board feet—which is a measure of volume, NOT surface area, but all you need to know to calculate it is the square footage of the areas you need to cover. It’s a simple calculation:

Length in inches x Width in inches  x Preferred depth of the spray foam in inches. Divide the result by 144.

So for example, an 8′ x 8′ wall with 3″ of foam would be:

96″ x 96″ x 3″ = 27,648 / 144 = 192 Board Feet

In other words, one Dow Froth-Pak 210 will provide about 3.25″ thickness of foam over an 8’x8′ wall.

AND THAT IS AS MUCH MATH AS I EVER WANT TO DO IN BLOG FORMAT. This is not a math blog. I’m sure those exist and I’m also sure I’m not interested.

I was hoping to get about 3 inches of spray foam on all exterior walls/ceilings, and my total board feet was about 1,350. Ideally I would have bought two Froth-Pak 650s and one Froth-Pak 210, but the 650 was out of stock so I bought all 210s instead. The product is the same, it’s just the amount in each kit that changes.

The total cost of that, by the way? A little over $1,800 clams. Add in various other supplies (we’ll get to that!) and it’s about $2,000 to insulate this room. To be honest I was excited to try the product and didn’t try to quote it out to a professional, so I can’t tell you how they compare cost-wise, but local labor prices can be all over the map so I’m not sure how helpful that would be anyway.

INSTALLING THE DOW FROTH-PAK FOAM INSULATION KIT

SO. With framing, furring (mostly just to compensate for old, uneven framing), and electric complete, it’s time to get down to it! Again—I AM NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE MANUAL. I’m just a guy with a dream of a warm house in January.

Step 1: Check the temperature of your tank contents—this threw me for a loop so I’m making it item 1. There is a small temperature gauge on the side of the tanks, and a cut-out on the front of the box so you can read it without even unpacking everything. The interior contents of the tanks need to be between 75-85 degrees for optimal performance/mixing. This is a two-part system, so dispensing the proper mix is essential, and the temperature affects that. 75-85 degrees is WARM! Just sitting in my house, the tanks were reading much too cold so I placed the whole box on top of my cast iron hot water radiators (which are toasty to the touch but nowhere near enough to burn you), making sure to check them every 20 minutes or so as the contents slowly warmed up. NOTE: Dow recommends use of a particular heat tape or heat blanket for this purpose. I didn’t have them. Again, don’t be stupid—this had the contents heating at a pace of about 5 degrees per hour, so it took a few hours. Heating too rapidly/aggressively could cause an explosion, you crazy thing!

Step 2: Prep! If you don’t want it to get covered in spray foam, mask it off—ideally with something you don’t mind throwing away at the end. I had some already used 6-mil plastic in the garage that I used to mask off the chimney, the baseboards, and the door to the room. If I had more I’d have used it on the floor, too, but I just had this tarp. You also want to seal off the work space from the rest of the house as well as you can, and ventilate it (I opened all the windows and had a good cross-breeze, but the manual goes into good detail). I used my Bostitch pneumatic staple gun (currently on sale for $40!!) to keep my masking in place—it was a bit easier to put it up when working alone, and more secure than tape. Contractor bags worked nicely for wrapping the collar ties, which will probably be cleaned up a little and left exposed.

Step 3: Put on your costume! Like I said—this is serious business. Spray foam is both extremely sticky when wet and all kinds of toxic, so this is not a place you want to skimp. That means a disposable full-body suit, full protective eyewear, chemical resistant gloves, and a full-face or half-mask air-purifying respirator—I used this 3M one from Lowe’s, fitted with these cartridges. Small tip I wish I had: cover the face of your goggles with clear packing tape that you can remove and replace as needed. Dried spray foam can be removed from glass with a razor blade, but goggles are plastic and overspray may accumulate and make it difficult to see, and the spray foam will not come off without scratching them up too much to be usable. A headlamp may be helpful for darker spaces—I love this rechargeable LED Craftsman one (also on sale!).

Step 4: Unbox your Froth-Pak kit, ensuring the temperature gauge is between 75-85 degrees. The room and surfaces to be sprayed don’t have to be that warm, just the interior contents of the tanks. Shake both tanks for 30-60 seconds. You can shake them individually or use the carrying handle to hold them above the ground and rock them back and forth.

Step 5: Open the top valves on both tanks COMPLETELY. It’s very important that both valves are entirely open to ensure a proper mix. You should see the chemicals move through the hoses as the valves are opened—one is clear and one is brown-ish.

Step 6: Using the packet provided, apply some petroleum jelly to the inside face of the dispenser. This is primarily if you plan to use the Froth-Pak over multiple sessions and need to keep the dispenser free of dried foam between uses.

Step 7: Insert the nozzle into the dispenser gun. The Froth-Pak comes with two nozzle shapes—a blue “fan” nozzle and a clear “cone” nozzle. For a situation like mine, the fan nozzle proved the most helpful in terms of creating an even spray across a large surface. Dow gives you lots of spare nozzles that you may or may not use—but after you’ve started with one, it has to be changed any time there’s more than 30 seconds between sprays because the product cures so quickly and any blockage could screw up the ratio of the two parts. When the nozzle is fully inserted, you should hear a click and the yellow nozzle ejector will be clamped down.

Step 8: Pointing the dispenser into a container like a trash can (I used the box it all came in), purge the lines for 5-10 seconds. Foam should dispense pretty quickly.

Step 9: Practice! TAKE THIS PART SERIOUSLY. It definitely takes some getting used to. Using whatever you have available (I had a scrap piece of sheetrock), practice applying the foam as you will on your surface. You want to stay perpendicular to the surface, at an even distance (6″-24″ away), moving at an even pace in a side to side stroke. ALSO. VERY IMPORTANT. The foam only cures properly (and safely) if the layer of expanded foam is 2 inches or less. It will expand 3-4 times its thickness, so you want an even 1/4″-1/2″ coverage while you spray.  Inconsistencies in your pace, distance, or angle will result in an uneven application—and it’s harder than it looks, I promise. Especially with all that gear on and the pace you kind of need to keep up.

Step 10: Check your practice area. About 1 minute after spraying, it should have fully expanded and dried to the touch. It’s fully cured in 5 minutes—which is kind of bonkers.

Step 11: Start spraying! At this point you’ll probably want to change your nozzle. Using all the knowledge in your brains and safety equipment on your body, get to work. Perpendicular to your surface. Even distance. Even pace. Side to side. 1/4″-1/2″ thickness. Don’t panic. Because the foam cures so quickly, you can apply additional layers within minutes to build up to your final thickness—it’s better to do several thin applications than a too-thick application . To ensure you don’t run out of nozzles, you want to work fairly quickly. Avoid applying foam over foam that was just sprayed and is in the process of curing, and avoid build-up of foam beyond the depth of the wall, as this will need to be removed later on. Each Froth-Pak 210 took me about 20-30 minutes to mix, get set up, and use. By the way, the foam will stick to a lot of things including rigid foam boards—which you can see were already installed on parts of the back wall, and I just sprayed right over them since there was plenty of space in the cavity. Those foam boards should be R-10 on their own.

Step 12: The tanks will become increasingly lightweight as the contents are dispensed, which makes them more likely to tip over as you move. I’d highly recommend having a helper for this job (also in full protective equipment) who can help ensure the tanks stay upright, move them while you work around the room, and help identify areas that need more applied. As the tanks are nearing empty, you will notice the pressure change (kind of a quick sputtering) and the foam may look slightly different (darker, more viscous). STOP IMMEDIATELY. This foam is the wrong ratio and will not expand/cure properly—don’t think you can squeeze just a little more out, because those tanks are DONE. RETIRED. NO MORE FOAM 4 U. The tanks should feel empty, although there might be a little more liquid in there you can hear. That’s OK. It’s still done. I promise.

Step 13: Do not. Think that. You can just. Throw these things away. I said it all dramatic like that so you read past the word “done” (see item 12.). The manual explains a whole easy-peasy but super duper important disposal protocol, which is in place so you don’t inadvertently cause an explosion. I have nothing new to add to that so just please make sure you read it and do it, ok?

SO. IT HAS COME TO PASS. The whole insulation process took about 4-5 hours start to finish (including the masking and prep, but the tanks had to heat up for longer beforehand), and I think the coverage was basically as advertised so I didn’t need additional tanks. I found the technique of getting an even coating fairly challenging (you can see areas that look good and areas that look…not so good)—I do feel like I improved throughout the process, but since my first coat wasn’t especially smooth I didn’t give myself the best foundation. Like with painting, small lumps become bigger and bigger lumps with each new coat.

I was a bit nervous about fumes, but I left the windows open for about 12 hours after finishing up and I really don’t notice a smell when I go in there! Like…at all? Maybe something faint that could also be my imagination? I can tell you the difference is like night and day, heat-wise. It hasn’t been there long enough to know how it affects my bills/consumption (and those two casement windows are still drafty as hell—another thing on the ole to-do), but the kitchen below feels warmer and suddenly this room is OK to be in! It’s 30 degrees out! The street noise is also much quieter, and the whole room is immediately so much BRIGHTER—which doesn’t really matter because it’ll all be covered, but it makes it so much easier to work in especially in the evening hours which is when I’m the most likely to tackle stuff.

SO MUCH EASIER, IN FACT, that now I’m like…am I finishing this room now? To be totally honest I’ve forced myself to kind of stay away from it for a long time now just because there are so many more pressing things (I SEE YOU, KITCHEN. I JUST CAN’T AFFORD YOU. I’M WORKING ON IT.)…but now that it’s to this point, and I feel like I know what I want to do, it’s pretty much just a bunch of carpentry I could chip away at? Little by little? With supplies I mostly already have? And then? I could? Have guests? Like a person? Who owns a rather large house? And lives? Alone?

Dare to dream.

Fall Checklist: Installing Locks, Lights, and a Few Garage Updates!

This blog mini-series is a paid partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

BY GOLLY the last couple of weeks have been packed. While I’m working on pulling together a post for the wild and wholly ride that was/is restoring the side of my house (it’s done! finally! mostly!), I wanted to pop in and share a smaller project I tackled last week on my long-suffering garage! We took a brief and enlightening tour of the garage’s status back in August, including a bunch of work that I’ve put into it over the years, so feel free to catch yourself up if you’re interested.

In a nutshell: I have, over time, made small and large-ish gestures toward improving my garage. I have also, over time, generally failed to really see these garage-centric projects through to polished completion. Why? Because there’s a whole lot of house that keeps me more than occupied enough, so the garage takes a back seat. Various smaller tasks have been put off until some later date TBD, which is fine and par for the course except for the part where seeing those unfinished items bothers you every single day for months or years. Ya know. It’s not fun having that stuff hanging over you.

SO. Having wrapped up the majority of what I wanted to get done this fall on the side of the house AND being blessed with a few more days of nice fall weather, I took the opportunity to tie up some of these loose ends on the garage! I FEEL SO MUCH BETTER! Allow me to explain myself.

Last time we saw the garage, I’d painted it black, gutted the interior, added a ton of lumber storage, redone the electric, and added a set of 5′ wide french doors to the back to provide easier access for large and unwieldy items that frequently get moved in and out. Of course, in this time I’ve also torn off the back of the house twice, the side of the house once, brought massive amounts of soil into the yard, built raised beds, hauled as much wood in as I’ve brought out…the garage has taken kind of a beating and the time was nigh to give it a little attention.

With all that work behind me you might think there wouldn’t be that much in front of me, but you’d be so adorably wrong, you cute sweet thing. Haven’t we gotten the hang of this by now? The rule is, there’s always more to do. So there are some parts I’m not mentioning, like how that little old deadbolt on that little skinny old door above Mekko’s head in that first picture is…well, we’ll generously call it decorative. It used to work. By some miracle the key actually was conveyed to me at the house closing, and by some additional miracle I didn’t lose it. But at some point it stopped latching, and no amount of fiddling seemed to fix it.

Instead of fixing this security-breach-waiting-to-happen, I went ahead and installed a set of french doors that come with no hardware whatsoever! I elegantly painted one coat on the exterior of the doors, and then only scraped the glass on one of them, leaving the decidedly “in progress” look you see above. Which kind of stops being acceptable after a couple of years.

SO. With a broken deadbolt on one door, and the other set of doors being held closed inside the garage with a heavy object that successfully defeated the wind blowing the doors open but wasn’t likely to stump a person, we have some issues. SECURITY CONCERNS, you may call them. NOT SMART, DANIEL. Particularly as I have steadily filled the garage with lots of lumber but also various valuable outdoor power equipment that I’d be super duper incredibly bummed to have walk off. Unfortunately this concern has actual basis—the garage did get robbed once, years ago. I hadn’t owned the house long and there wasn’t much out there, but this is why I no longer own a bike! I miss my bike. Some jerk has my bike.

So. Let’s try to avoid that happening again.

Here we’ll be replacing an old surface-mount deadbolt with a new, regular through-the-door deadbolt, so the first order of business was removing the old one! Obviously different brands/eras will mean different designs and parts, but generally you can do this as long as you have access to both sides of the door and a screwdriver.

My surface-mount deadbolt was mounted to the door with a bracket, and then the lock housing was attached with three flat head screws.

After removing all of the parts from the inside of the door, removing the exterior trim was easy-peasy. Insert key and pull.

Here’s where things get slightly tricky. Because most of the surface-mount deadbolt’s guts are in the surface-mount housing, the hole in the door is way too small for a modern deadbolt where the guts are housed inside the door. This hole was 1.5″ or so, but my new lock called for a 2 1/8″ hole. At this point I could have decided to just drill a new hole below the existing one and patch the old hole, but that’s one of those solutions that’s somehow lazy and also more work.

For larger holes like this, you’ll need a hole saw. Over the years I’ve just bought them piecemeal as-needed, but it’s nice to get a snazzy set with a little carrying case if you’re fancy like that. In case you’ve never used one, essentially that part in the bottom fits into your drill, and that drill bit in the center kind of acts as a pilot to anchor your hole saw in place while you drill. Without that small bit (it’s removable in case it breaks), it’s pretty much impossible to keep the hole saw in place—instead it’ll jump all over the place, damaging your surface and making you so sad.

So. The problem is thus. There’s already a hole where that bit needs to drive in to keep my hole saw from walking as I drill. Never gonna work.

SO! Using a speed-square to mark the location of the existing hole for reference, I then attached a small piece of scrap wood temporarily to the door. A couple of drywall screws does the trick, and those holes are small enough to patch super easily.

Then, continue as usual. The deadbolt will almost certainly come with a simple paper template, which makes quick work of figuring out exactly where to drill. Many, like this Schlage one I’m using, allow for a couple of different options for the center point, in case your door has narrow stiles (like this one!) or you need to align with other existing hardware.

Because my scrap wood block throws off the thickness off the door, I opted to drill my pilot hole and then remove the paper template, so I could reuse it after removing the temporary block. Remember I’ll also need to drill a hole through the side of the door for the bolt to go in and out of.

See how nicely that works? The temporary block continues to keep the hole saw in that spot until you’ve made it all the way through the door. Then just unscrew it and you have a perfect hole! Then it was just a matter of taping the paper template back up and drilling the 1″ hole through the side with a different drill bit, where the paper template instructed. I used a forstner bit, but a spade or auger bit would work, too.

Congrats on your perfect hole. One down, one to go!

For the french doors, I decided to keep it really simple and went with this nice Schlage keyed entry door handle, so the lock and the handle are one piece of hardware. It installs very similarly to the deadbolt, and because there weren’t any weird existing conditions to work around it went pretty fast!

So that was the project. But then…you know…one thing leads to another. Instead of just installing the new hardware and walking away, I decided to spend a little extra time finally finishing painting the new french doors, and repainting the old side door. Because each of those french doors has 15 lites, it’s kind of nice that the glass comes with a protective plastic film that you can just cut away and dispose of after painting and be left with very little to razor blade off the glass.

I also figured there was no time like the present to give the original doorknobs from the side door a little TLC. There wasn’t a ton of old paint but it was stubborn, so I threw them in my dedicated old hardware crock pot to loosen it all and then scrubbed them clean. Works like a charm.

A note about those knobs and the door they came from: I noticed during this adventure that the rim lock on the inside of the garage door has a patent date on it from 1869! That aligns pretty closely with when the house was likely built (1865, until proven otherwise), but I can’t imagine this garage pre-dates the early 20th century, just looking at the framing, materials, foundation, windows, etc. Most of the doorknobs in my house are white porcelain, but these kind of marbled faux-bois ones are used in a few places like the inside of closets (presumably they weren’t considered as fancy?). It makes me wonder if there used to be a different barn/shed/outbuilding of some kind that got demolished, with parts like this door getting reused for the newer structure.

Who knows, but it’s things like that which make me feel very…comfortable in this house? I totally would have done the same thing a hundred years ago. Love a recycling project!

Sooooooooooooooooo. Before I know it, I have all the tools and ladders out and am just casually repainting half the garage in a day, as one does. There were a couple little areas of peeling paint, plus some caulk splitting, plus I used a satin finish this time instead of a matte finish, which to me looks a little nicer and feels easier to keep clean and avoid scuffing. It took about a gallon of Valspar Duramax exterior latex in satin, which I had color-matched to the same color I used the first time around, Ben Moore’s Onyx.

One of my new painting must-haves is this particular paintable Big Stretch caulk by Sashco, which is now available at Lowe’s! I was so excited when I saw it there, since it used to be kind of difficult to find. It’s great stuff. I hate it when I finish a painting job only to have the caulk crack after a few months, not to mention the damage that can cause when it’s on an exterior.

Oh right, also! I had all but forgotten that when I roughed in the electric in the garage, I left a wire for another exterior light over the french doors! I picked up this simple and classic light, which I opted to spray paint black. All black everything garage! I considered a pop of color but then thought…nah, better not.

I used some Rust-o-leum spray paint I had half a can of down in the basement (this one is similar!), and it looks so nice! One VERY COOL feature of this light is that it has a light sensor on the canopy, which automatically turns it on when it gets dark out. Why don’t all exterior lights have those?! You can actually buy a similar part and retrofit almost any fixture fairly easily—I’m already thinking I might do that for the lights on the street-facing side of the garage, since I can’t seem to program the timer switch to save my life. I can’t handle advanced technology.

And THEN, taking a step back from my work, it occurred to me that even though those french doors bring a lot of nice light into the garage, once the glass has been scraped and cleaned they also REALLY expose the yard to a view of all the mayhem inside. NOPE. I HAVE NOT COME THIS FAR FOR THIS. Too much realness. I just want to keep up appearances, damn it!

So THEN, I picked up two of these affordable curtains from Lowe’s, plus four of these rods so I could kind of stretch and pleat the fabric on the back of the doors without having flappy curtain fabric in a place where they’d likely get dirty or caught on something. The curtains themselves are a pretty sheer polyester with kind of a linen look, so they should hold up well to this kind of use. The rods are also easily removable from the brackets, meaning the curtains can be taken down with little effort and thrown in the wash to my heart’s content.

(Sorry for the scary nighttime pictures—it gets dark early now and my momentum cannot wait for things like natural daylight.)

The curtains were a bit too long for my doors, so I had to hem them about 10″. OH YES HE DID BREAK OUT THE SEWING MACHINE. He’s drilling through doors! He’s painting the garage! He’s stripping hardware! He’s refinishing a light! He’s installing electric boxes! He’s sewing curtains! These are the days I’m really hoping no neighbors are watching me from their windows, because I seem patently unhinged. Is this…the blogger lifestyle? Am I finally doing it right?!

The curtains worked out really well, though. I’m kind of proud. GETTIN. IT. DONE!

Hey hey, garage! Looking pretty slick! You may note that CLEARLY I am unconcerned with the garage showing its age in the from of layers and layers and layers of old paint. Am I the only one who kinda…digs that? Like I think I actually prefer it on a building like this?

I love the way that old doorknob really pops against the black, especially now that it’s clean.

So. Real talk. If I had to choose my favorite thing about the past few years of world history, I can tell you one thing that would rank. It used to be that finding matte black hardware for anything was near impossible, and often meant resorting to spray paint. NO LONGER. The powers that be have deemed matte black a FULL ON TREND and now the options are vast! I love that major brands like Schlage have caught on so quickly and made this option available—I know it’s JUST A DEADBOLT but I’ll still agonize over how it looks, and this one looks handsome and inconspicuous and legitimately makes me happy. Also it WORKS! VERY WELL! Obviously I wasn’t obsessing over the security of my garage before this, but it bothered me and now it doesn’t. I have room in my head for all sorts of other things to bother me now!!

I’m also really pleased with the Schlage keyed entry handle on the french doors! I installed a simple slide bolt at the top of the left side door inside to keep it stationary, and the right side door now does all of these door things that are very exciting. It opens! It closes! It latches! It locks! The improvement is night and day. Also can we appreciate how nice those curtains look? I SEWED. FOR YOU. Mostly for me but also for you.

I’m not mad about this 5 year progress! In case you’re looking for flaws…I decided to extend the sill under the french doors to the edges of the casing (it should have been done that way to begin with; I’m not sure what we were thinking), so the wood epoxy covering the patch was still curing and not ready for paint when I took these pictures. The window on the side also needs a lot of work, so I’m saving that for another day. So there are still some problem areas, but the improvement achieved in this short exciting whirlwind has me feeling SO much happier with the whole thing in the meantime.

Super thrilled with how this light came out! The factory finish on the inside of the shade was white, which I considered leaving alone but I’m glad I sprayed it black. That combined with this adorable (and honestly pretty convincing!) LED filament-style bulb creates a really nice amount of light in this area of the yard. I really like those faux Edison-style LED bulbs for exterior lights—they cast a very warm light (even warmer than an incandescent), and the energy consumption is so low that they don’t drive up the old electric bill.

So there we have it! I’m having a hard time putting this feeling into words, but I’ll try anyway: we’re decidedly at the end of fall, and for the first time in this house, that fact isn’t inspiring major panic and feelings of immense personal failure. In years past it’s always been something…the roof, or the heat system, or the unfinished exterior work, or last year when the kitchen was just a total shell with no walls or insulation (not to mention electric, plumbing, or anything else), or the year before when walking through the house felt like a tour of the post-apocalypse. Which is all to say, if you’re in the thick of it: I don’t know that there’s a point at which the work ever get easier, but it does get more manageable. A day will come when that fall to-do list feels more plausible than aspirational, and you might actually feel like you’re doing this whole thing kind of right. One foot in front of the other.

Fall Checklist: Planting Shrubs & Trees!

This blog mini-series is in partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

Fall is, hands down, my favorite time of year to plant. Who wants to dig a big hole when it’s super hot and muggy out? Who wants to watch a shrub struggle all summer because it got too hot too quickly after it was planted? Nobody. Fall is a great, oft-underrated time to plant trees and shrubs especially (before they go dormant for winter), and this year I was determined to do both! AND SPOILER: I DID!

I’ve been REALLY trying to pay serious attention to gardens I like when I see them out in the wild—from the layout to the particular mix and massing of plants that make them up, and this longitudinal study into my own preferences has resulted in one thing I know to be true: I love a boxwood. I love them as individuals and I love them as hedges. I love them when they form parterres and I love them when they form other things I don’t know the terminology for. I love that they stay green all winter and I love that the only real work that goes into them is giving them a haircut once in a while, which is a task I actually enjoy.

So let’s start at this area in front of my recently pressure-washed porch. Back when I bought the house, it looked basically like this. See that mass of hosta? I dug that up and divided it, creating TWENTY-FIVE individual plants.

I moved them to the space in front of the low wrought-iron fence with some purple heart and creeping jenny. Evidently it gets too cold here for purple heart to be a perennial (live and learn!), but the hostas have come back bigger and bigger year after year, as they do! They work really well in this spot because they’re so hardy—they get a little abused with foot traffic in this location but they can handle it. And since they die off for the winter, that space can get mounded with sidewalk snow and come back fine in the spring.

You can kind of see right behind the hostas on the other side of the fence, I did a hideously dumb thing. I planted day lillies. They came from somewhere in the backyard, and at this point I know I was feeling like I’d NEVER accumulate enough plants to deal with this yard and I simply had to use what I had, regardless of whether I actually liked it. Personally, I do not like day lillies. They produce a weak showing of flowers once a year, look crappy the rest of the time, and reproduce and spread like a small annoying plague. More on that in a second.

Anyway. Since I know I love boxwoods, I’ve tried to add new ones every year in the hopes that someday I’ll have all the hedges and fanciness my heart desires. I counted them up and it turns out I’ve actually planted thirty boxwoods since I’ve lived here, which ain’t bad! I tend to buy the smallest ones at Lowe’s, mainly for cost reasons. Prices vary year after year, but they’re usually in the $10-range. I planted these three years ago in front of the porch and on the side of the portico, since neither of these foundations are particularly good-looking but nothing a nice hedge wouldn’t conceal! I’m not really a fan of foundation plantings around the house generally (since I want to maintain access to the siding and foundation for current/future maintenance, and don’t want roots affecting my foundation), but I think around a porch is more OK. Boxwoods don’t root very deeply, which both makes them decent candidates for planting close to a structure and pretty easygoing if they need to be transplanted.

Anyway! This photo is from a few days ago, and despite clearly being on their way out, the hostas have all gotten so big and bushy! The boxwoods have all grown! And those day lillies did exactly what they do, which is propagate and look a mess!

It occurred to me that this area in front of the porch might be a nice place to enact a little parterre action, like in that inspiration image (which is Kingston’s own Senate House, the building where New York ratified its state constitution in 1777!). I already have two of the four sides installed! So I ripped all those day lillies out and took myself to Lowe’s hoping the nursery still had boxwoods in stock.

OHHHHHH YEAHHHHHH. I may have gotten a little excited. Did I mention that another reason I like fall planting is because of clearance sales??! It varies by store, but you can pretty much count on end-of-season promotions as they need to clear out summer/fall stock, so these babies were being offered at 50% off! Yassssss. I bought 22 of them, like any totally normal person whose house is under hella construction would, right?

Whatever, I will take a major discounted boxwood windfall whenever and wherever it comes. These things cannot be controlled.

A couple of quick notes about boxwoods, specifically, after having done some light research. Apparently boxwoods smell unpleasant, kind of like cat pee, to some people. Personally, I don’t have this problem. There are a lot of varieties of boxwoods, which is helpful to know when selecting them—particularly if you’re sensitive to the scent! Evidently English Boxwoods are the stinkiest and on the more difficult end of the spectrum to grow. The ones I bought are called Winter Gem Boxwoods which are a type of Korean boxwood, and they’re one of my favorite varieties. They’re super hardy, grow quickly, and have a nice dense foliage. You might have seen people wrap/tent their boxwoods in the winter, but I’ve never done that (that’s totally one of those aspirational fall tasks that current-me totally envisions future-me doing, but likely I will not) and they’ve been great even with heavy snow loads and record-setting low temperatures.

OK THEN.

Here is where I freely admit that I don’t think I’m a natural-born gardener from a design perspective. I love houses and rooms but I find gardens INCREDIBLY challenging from a conceptual standpoint—this is the part of the house I’d totally hire a designer for if I could. That being said, I enjoy the puttering, and I think I AM really pretty good at growing stuff—very rarely do my plants die, and I certainly can’t credit outstanding maintenance or any other special skills. I do, however, plant pretty much everything exactly the same way, so I like to think that’s what I bring to the table. It is not complicated.

It starts with laying things out. Like a dry fit! Obviously this is so you can get an idea of how it looks and figure out if you have enough plants, adjust your spacing, etc.

Once that’s done, I start planting. If there’s mulch (especially fresh mulch), rake it out away from the hole you’re digging so you don’t mess it up with a bunch of soil. Then dig a hole that’s twice as wide and twice as deep as the pot the plant came in. It’s tempting to not do this, especially if the plant is large, but it’s important to give those roots a good chance at success, and the ability to spread into soil that isn’t so compacted.

Into the hole, I’ll throw a few inches of good, nutrient-rich soil. I try not to freak out about exactly what this is: there are a lot of options but basically a compost, composted manure, topsoil, or a soil mix formulated specifically for whatever you’re planting seem to all be just fine (or at least better than nothing! gardeners, feel free to chime in). In this case I’m using compost from my own composter!

The most important thing is to not panic. That’s a general statement but also applies here.

Then I flood the hole with lots of water, and then mix up the fancy rich soil with the water and other soil in the hole with the shovel or a stick.

Then I remove the plastic pot to expose the roots! Look at those roots! Such vigor! Big up, Monrovia.

Then I use my fingers or a small shovel or whatever I grab first to break up the roots a bit. It’s ok if some of them break. This encourages them to spread out into their new environment and create new growth.

Then I just stick the roots down into the hole, making sure that the base of the plant is even with the surrounding grade. Pack around the roots with some compost and the soil you removed from the hole.

Afterwards, I give everything a good soak from above. Sometimes if I haven’t packed the soil well, this watering settles loose soil around the plant, so check to see if you need to add more soil. Of course, I try to remember to water frequently during the first few weeks or so, but ya know. Sometimes that doesn’t work out, but it’s the intention that counts. Unless the plant dies, in which case the watering is probably what would have counted.

So that’s how I plant stuff.

Then I got to break out my new toy—the Greenworks Pro hedge trimmer (which is currently on sale!)! The hedge trimmers use the same battery as my lawnmower and my leaf blower, which I just love. It’s all so easy to switch between tools. The hedge trimmers are seriously powerful and the quality seems great. I almost wish they didn’t work so well because the job was done so quickly and I was just getting into the groove!

You have to be careful about trimming boxwoods too late into the fall since you want the trimmed parts to harden before the first frost, but I felt pretty confident I still had time left on the calendar. I only trimmed the plants that have been here for a few years already and are well-established, and I tried to be cautious to only give them a light trim—just enough to even things out and make everything look under control.

Finally, MULCH TIME! Normally I just mulch once in the spring, but I didn’t get to it this year! I probably would have just waited until this coming spring since retaining moisture and preventing weeds aren’t such big issues in the winter, but mulch also acts as an insulator to keep roots warmer and protected through the winter—which with freshly planted shrubs is more important than ever.

My old faithful is this inexpensive black mulch from Lowe’s. I think of mulching a lot like painting a room—it’s that thing at the end after all the hard work that instantly makes everything look so goooood. I aim for about a 2-3″ layer, making sure to get all the way around the base of the new plants. Then it’s just a matter of watering everything again to help kind of settle the mulch into place.

Different time of year, but this is as close as I could get to a before-and-after! I’m so happy with how this area has progressed over the past few years. I feel like it’s starting to look like something nice! Feel free to review progress from 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 if you really want to take a deep dive.

The two old rhododendrons are amazingly still going, although I think their remaining years are numbered. I’ll probably rip them out when I make it to restoring the porch itself and need more space to work. It’s possible I’ll have to transplant the boxwoods during that process as well, but that’s OK. This stuff can be tricky to figure out, because there’s so much of the house to get to but I’m not sure exactly when that will come to pass, and I still want it to look good and relatively cared for in the interim! I have a deep fear of making it a decade down the road with this house and realizing I don’t have any mature plants to landscape with.

Oh! I also dug up those hostas in front of this section of the fence, split them, and planted them closer together so they form more of a hedge than they currently do. I think if the boxwood hedge gets to about the height of the porch floor, and the hosta hedges much closer to the ground, this will look nice and layered but still structured and simple. We shall see in the coming years! I hope to get to splitting ALL of the hostas this fall but that might be rapidly becoming a spring project. We’ll all find out together.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Because I bought…so many bushes.

The rest of the boxwoods went to the newly-restored side of the house, which may not FEEL that exciting—but holy cow, getting to the point that I can safely plant stuff without worrying I’m going to accidentally trample them or squish them with the ladder I’ve moved around this area a thousand times over the course of this summer/fall was VERY EXCITING. Finishing up the work on this side of the house has felt like climbing a mountain, at the top of which are a series of many smaller mountains I won’t be able to climb this fall (like restoring every window), but having the bulk of the work done and something nice happening with the landscaping feels like major victory. I’ll show you the whole thing soooooon!

BUT WAIT, THERE’S STILL MORE! I’M NEVER SHUTTING UP! Let’s time-hop again, back to…

3 years ago, I planted 3 Cleveland Flowering Pear Trees from Lowe’s in that strip between the sidewalk and the street. See them? One of the truly striking things when you compare old pictures of the neighborhood to new ones is the current utter lack of trees in a neighborhood that used to have tons of them! My block, for instance, used to be lined with big beautiful trees, and now there are exactly three trees and they’re all babies and they all belong to me. It’s a shame, because nicely placed trees are not only one of the easiest ways to instantly boost curb appeal, but they also help with pollution, storm water management, property value, and more. Research even shows that mature trees make a difference in public safety and crime! A quick google search returned this nice succinct run-down of why trees are so important to urban spaces.

I am the Lorax.

I’m not sure why it took so long, but it finally occurred to me that I could totally plant a fourth tree in the same line, but to the right of my garage. There’s space!

So I went and picked up another Cleveland Flowering Pear. Flowering pear trees also seem to have a certain…olfactory problem for some people when they’re in bloom (which realistically is a couple of weeks in the spring), which…I’ll let you research on your own. But they’re beautiful, they grow quickly, they flower but don’t fruit (helping avoid vermin that might want to snack on fallen fruit!), and they grow in this predictable, very upright columnar shape that makes them great for a narrow spot like this, where you don’t want to interfere with the sidewalk or eventually have it growing too close to the house. They’re also SO hardy—I probably haven’t watered the three original ones basically since they were planted, and they’ve easily quadrupled in size and are really starting to look great. This is even with the teenaged neighbor kid who seems determined to kill them and breaks off branches and messes with them when he thinks nobody’s looking. Facepalm.

I used up all my homemade compost on the boxwoods, so I picked up a big bag of this Sta-Green Tree and Shrub Garden soil. Otherwise my planting method was exactly the same.

Grow, little tree! Grow! This guy was also 50% off, making his total cost a whopping $15. For a whole tree! Can’t beat that. Hopefully at some point it’ll catch up to its siblings that have had a few years head-start. This also reminds me that I have to get out there and add some mulch around it! There’s always something, am I right?

PHEW! Well I’m pooped! My big fall checklist is winding down, though, and I’m starting to get excited to turn my attention back toward the inside of the house. I guess technically we have another month of fall, so I’m going to try to keep working through those remaining items and see how far I get. Hang on just a little longer, mother nature!

Fall Checklist: Pressure Washing Away The Grime!

This blog mini-series is in partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

Friends: I have picked up a new hobby. A passion project, if you will. The hobby is obliterating dirt and grime from various surfaces with water from a magic wand. Literally, it’s called a wand and it’s part of my new pressure washer!

Carrying on with the theme of trying to make the front of my house look presentable while it awaits restoration and I wrap up the huge restoration of the side of the house, I focused a little attention on the front porch!

From a distance, the porch looks…pretty OK? It appears to be mostly original, and the fact that it’s still there at all is the main bright spot. It’s going to need a ton of work eventually—everything from the cornice (which may or may not need to be at least partially rebuilt—the rot is bad), to the siding, to those gloriously large 6-over-9 windows, to the door, to the transom, to the floor, to the columns. Literally all of it! I used to think I’d tackle the whole front elevation of the house at once, but now I’m thinking restoring the porch may well take an entire summer to get right. Isn’t that center column crazy looking?

I think that’s what happens when a contractor temporarily supports the roof and removes the original columns to install a new floor (the original floor was almost definitely tongue-and-groove fir, not 5/4″x6″ pressure-treated pine decking!), and then doesn’t understand that the columns are tapered when he throws a level on the side of the original column to put it back. I’m presuming this contractor was male, because only a guy would be this dense. The column is tapered, genius! You’re doing it all wrong! It’s only super noticeable when you look at the porch head-on, but of course it makes me mad whenever I think about it. Poor beautiful house. Who hurt you like this?

IN ANY EVENT. I sweep the porch sometimes. That’s about it. To be honest it’s not like the porch is in constant use—looking out onto the street isn’t the most bucolic view in the world, but I do like to sit out there on warm days with a cup of coffee or a cocktail and my laptop, getting some work done and watching the world go by until I get bored of the world and want to go inside. Sadly over time I’ve definitely used the porch less, not more, which I didn’t think about much until I realized the reason for that is pretty simple.

OK fine I’ll show you.

Please be kind.

I’m sorry in advance.

GASP! I FEEL LIKE A MONSTER! Yes, for real: that’s how the vinyl siding under the porch looked until a few days ago. No, it hasn’t always been that bad. No, I have not doctored this photo for dramatic effect. Yes, I have completely neglected to touch it in five years because if I’m not actively renovating it, what is the point of doing even some light maintenance?

The point is this: restoring a house takes a long time, and in that time you constantly have to negotiate between quick and achievable solutions and long-term, more comprehensive work. Focusing only on the latter means that you’re ignoring the former (guilty!), and so everything starts to actually look way worse than it really is. When I look at things like this, my instinct is to just rip all the vinyl off the wall—can of worms be damned! But then I have to reign it in and remember that I will tackle that project someday, but not today. Today, I just need it to…not be disgusting. And if I’ve learned anything through working on the inside of houses, it’s that a good cleaning is the cheapest and fastest kind of makeover.

Just to cut myself a little slack, the whole house doesn’t look like this, I swear!!! The rest of the vinyl siding at least gets washed down a little when it rains, but these walls under the porch never get rained on, so all that road dirt and pollen and other dirt just kind of accumulates. Let’s try not to think too hard about what this may or may not suggest about my local air quality, seeing as I’d rather just keep living my life than figure out how to insert myself into a plastic bubble.

So. I described my gross situation to my fairy godparents at Lowe’s and asked if I could pretty-please have my very own pressure washer, and they obliged! #2blessed

As I have recently discussed, I have a deep and abiding aversion to equipment that needs gas or oil to work. Whether it’s a lawnmower or a weed whacker or a snow blower, in my mind they are all equally as complicated as an automobile or a fighter jet and I wouldn’t mess around with the innards of those either. I’ve had my car for like 4 years and only recently learned how to pop the hood…while I let the AAA guy replace my battery, which I’d sooner throw into the Hudson River than attempt to jump by myself. Way too risky. Are you nuts? I’ll stick to house stuff PLEASE AND THANK YOU and I just want my tools to work immediately and without hassle and this doesn’t seem like too much to ask out of life.

So anyway! My pressure washer is by Stanley, and it’s a plug-in model! And when you go to turn it on, it does so immediately and without hassle! It’s everything I ever wanted! Unfortunately it’s currently out of stock, but I got the inside scoop and they’re working on restocking them AS I TYPE THIS VERY SENTENCE so all is not lost. There are a bunch of electric pressure washers available, though, including this Greenworks one that’s evidently equally powerful, a little cheaper, and looks much more compact! Why didn’t I just get that one? NOT SURE. I felt like branching out into yellow machines. Like most new tools I buy, I generally don’t need the biggest, baddest, most powerful one out there, but I also don’t want the cheapest one because that often results in disappointment (and needing to replace it sooner). My Stanley machine lands in the middle/upper-end of available options, and seems more than sufficient to do the things I want it to do!

ANYWAY, back to my very disgusting siding. My basic strategy was to start up at the top of the wall and work my way down, concentrating on each horizontal run of siding on my way down. It took a few minutes to kind of get comfortable with it, and then it was ALL I WANTED TO DO for the rest of the day. I mean how satisfying, right? Included with the machine were a few different interchangeable nozzles for the end of the wand, which are helpful for different kinds of cleaning projects.

After giving everything a first pass, which maybe took about 20 minutes, things were looking about a thousand times better! DEFINITELY way more than a hose alone could have done, and way faster and less hassle than trying to do this by hand with a sponge and some rags which was my previous plan I’d been putting off forever.

Not all pressure washers have them, but one of the things I like about mine is that it has a separate chamber for detergent if you need something with more cleaning power than just pressurized water. It uses about 1 part of cleaner for every 10 parts of water, so concentrated cleaners that aren’t too gel-like work well. After I got most of the grime off, I filled the detergent compartment with regular white vinegar and went back for a second pass, figuring it couldn’t hurt and might help lighten some of the deeper staining. Lowe’s also sells a full line of cleaners for different applications—next time I want to add the Krud Kutter House and Siding Cleaner and see how that does! The regular Krud Kutter has become one of my indispensable cleaning products around the house, so I’m optimistic.

SO. TO REVIEW. BEFORE:

LIKE LITERALLY AN HOUR LATER:

I thought it would be cute to switch the coffee out for a cocktail and add a festive little lantern. This backfired because a) you can’t tell that the stupid candle is lit and b) my friend dropped by while this very profesh photoshoot was going on and I had to explain that I was not, in fact, fixing a cocktail to drink at 1 in the afternoon but rather to just take pictures of for the Internet, which I realized as it came out of my mouth just might actually be more embarrassing.

I TRY. But the point here is not my lackluster prop styling. The point here is my now positively LUMINOUS walls of vinyl siding that no longer look like they’ve been left to steep in a swamp for years on end.

It looks SO much better. One thing I didn’t totally know about vinyl siding is the extent to which it really does stain—you’d think plastic wouldn’t but it totally does. Most of the nastiness was surface dirt and staining, but even blasting at the highest pressure couldn’t get the deeper staining out. So it didn’t exactly achieve “it looks brand new!” kinds of results, but I blame the old vinyl (and MAYBE a certain someone’s years of deferred maintenance), not the washer. But this kind of improvement for a very little amount of work? I’LL TAKE IT! In fact, I really think this is a chore I can add to my seasonal to-do lists and do again a couple times a year to maintain it, and I know having my very own pressure washer will come in handy for ALL SORTS of things. I’m already giving my fence, garage and sidewalks side-eye. Also the street. Also my neighbors houses. What if I just start rogue pressure-washing things in the dead of night? Like I know I probably shouldn’t but just…WHAT IF? Watch out, world.

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