DIY Wood Plank Countertops

oldcounter

UPDATE: If you want to see how these countertops fared and were eventually upgraded with another cheap DIY solution, head on over here…)

As we have established many times over by now, my kitchen was full of a lot of nightmarish problems that added up to everything being pretty much terrible and disgusting. One of the things that was actually OK, though, were the old countertops. I’m sure they were original to the rest of our 1950s kitchen, and they’d actually held up pretty well over time——fairly scratched up and pitted in a few places, but overall there wasn’t anything terribly wrong with them. I even kind of like the off-white/gold-flecked formica thing in the right space, but they just really didn’t fit with the overall design plan of the room. Even though it goes against most of my instincts to start getting rid of things that are more or less functional, this was just one of those situations where it made sense.

I thought briefly of doing this super cool faux-concrete treatment to the existing counters, which seems relatively easy and looks great, but I felt really strongly that the countertops should be wood. I love the section of butcher block I have in my apartment kitchen, and given that the rest of the room is mainly black and white, I worried that the concrete would end up making things feel too cold and flat——the kitchen really needs some wood color and texture to bring it to life and inject some warmth.

I really wanted butcher block counters, but even at IKEA (which seems to be the cheapest option around, after much researching), the countertops alone would have run me about $320, not to mention the cost of transporting them here. The closest IKEA is a little over an hour away, and I have a tiny car, so it would have required a car rental…and a headache…and tears…and all of a sudden butcher block felt a little out of range. I know I keep repeating this, but we hope to totally redo this kitchen *for real* sometime down the line, so I didn’t really want to invest that much time and money in fancy countertops that——more likely than not——won’t get reused in a future renovation. So I wanted cheap, fast wood counters that wouldn’t be too precious but would get the job done.

countertopwood

I decided to check out the offerings at the local lumber yard, and found 2″ x 12″ x 12′ and 2″ x 6″ x 12′ fir framing lumber, priced at $19.01 and $8.05 per piece, respectively. Since I needed two pieces of 2″ x 12″ x 12′ and one piece of 2″ x 6″ x 12″, that’s $46.07 for new countertops! I decided to buy an extra piece of each, just in case I messed something up, and have it all delivered for an extra 20 clams.

Because lumber is weird, 2″ thick lumber is actually 1.5″ thick (which is standard for countertops), 12″ is a little less than 12″, and I needed my counters to be 25″ deep, so I needed to bond three boards together to achieve the right dimensions.

Now. Admittedly, these countertops are not fancy. They look very homespun and a little…rustic, which I actually kind of like. If I really knew what I was doing and had the right tools and supplies, I would have ripped the edges of the boards on my table saw (which I don’t have) and joined my pieces of lumber with a biscuit joiner (which I don’t have) and planed down my boards with a planer (which I don’t have) and I would have had nicer countertops. At least I think that’s what I would have done? Like I said. Not fancy.

Instead, what I did have is my handy little Kreg Jig! I bought this thing for a freelance project a while back, and it does a fabulous job of joining pieces of wood easily by helping you drill nice little pocket holes. The joint ends up being really strong and pretty hassle-free and easy to do. I bought a cheaper pocket hole drilling guide thing before I got the Kreg, and I have to say that the Kreg is really worth the extra cost at about $100, if you’re going to use it.

drilling

Here’s how it works! Basically you put the wood in, set the height adjustment, and drill your holes. I forgot that the bond is much stronger if you drill two holes instead of one at each screw placement, so I did that for the second countertop (which I stupidly did not photograph). I eyeballed where the screws should be, placing one about every 8 inches.

holes

They sell special clamps for keeping the wood level with itself (if you just try to screw it, the piece you’re screwing into tends to lift up about an 1/8″) but I just used the very pro method of having my friend Nora stand on the joint to keep it level while I screwed. I like to pre-place all my screws in the holes beforehand, since it’s easy to lose track of which holes have screws in them, and they’re almost impossible to see after they’re sunk in the pocket holes.

nora-sanding

I used my circular saw to cut the depth down after everything was joined together, and then we started in on the sanding! Framing lumber tends to be VERY rough, so the sanding was definitely the worst part of this whole thing. Nora and I just switched on and off when our arms began to feel like Jell-O, and it probably took about an hour (maybe more) for each countertop. We started with 60 grit sandpaper and just worked our way up the ranks, finishing with 220 grit. The lumber went from being super rough and a little ugly to suuuuuupppper smooth and soft and gorgeous.

sanded

After the sanding, this is about what we were left with. The bigger knots aren’t going anywhere, but the other parts felt like silk. So lux.

If I were going to do this all over again, I probably would have tried to have the adjoining edges at least ripped on a table saw about 1/4″, since the edges of the framing lumber aren’t very crisp. With perfect flat edges, the joints probably could have been tighter and more seamless, but I don’t really mind. I actually made a smaller section of countertop for my friend Anna after I made my own and attempted to do this with a circular saw and a rigid metal cutting guide, and that worked pretty well. Not perfect, but perfection is overrated!

countertop

I’m not entirely sure what to seal the countertops with in the long-term, but for now I put a generous coating of mineral oil on them to give them some water resistance and bring out the natural color of the fir. I love the way the wood looks with all of the knots and imperfections, and the tone of the wood is so pretty. I think they’ll look nice over time as they get dings and scratches, too——I like when things like this look well-used and have some character. The wood is too soft to double as a cutting board, but we’ll have a section of butcher block directly next to the stove and normal cutting boards available for all of our chopping desires, so I’m not worried about it.

If we had a bigger budget, we probably would have just sprung for actual butcher block, but for about $80 for all the materials and delivery (since I also had to buy the proper screws and a buttload of sandpaper), I feel pretty good about these counters! We’ve been using them for a couple of weeks now, and they’re doing exactly what they need to do, and that’s good enough for me!

beforeandprogress

Imagine with me for a moment that there are cabinet doors and drawers and new hardware and a different floor and pretty things on the counters and no hanging wires or weird exposed plumbing in that second picture. Also that I hadn’t left that little yellow sponge on the floor.

Can you see it? I can see it.

Cabinets! Grout!

People who have gone through major renovations tend to have a lot of sage advice about how to stay sane, follow through on tasks, and get the job done in an orderly, timely, and efficient fashion. They excel by keeping careful lists, the items of which they dutifully check off, taking its diminishing length as evidence of their success and the motivation to keep going. They keep their tools organized, in polite drawers and on pegboards, and they always know where their drill bits and pliers are.

I tried kind of hard to be like that, at the beginning. I spent a good 45 minutes every single night putting away all my tools and organizing everything. I was even going to do a whole post about it, like a total model citizen grown-up who knows how to not be a disaster.

All of that fell apart really quickly when we decided in a bout of excited, rash decision-making to start painting the kitchen cabinets! Seeing as we have no furniture, I was storing all my things in the kitchen cabinets and drawers. Losing the use of the drawers, I just sort of threw everything into the side porch (mistake #1) and then proceeded to let everything go to pieces like a wild animal (mistake #2). I decided to maybe just relax a little. Loosen the reigns. Let instinct and intuition guide my process. What could go wrong?

sandingfactory

First I removed all the cabinet doors and drawers and moved them outside. I’m not generally a stupid person, but for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me just how many there would be——I think 18 cabinet doors and 15 drawers. As we found out, having over 30 small separate kitchen components that all need to be sanded, patched, painted, and reattached with no plan or system in place is not a recipe for an efficient painting experience.

Then I put everyone to work (Max, Nora, Mekko) on sanding everything, because I’m a merciless dictator. Since we’re painting rather than refinishing, we didn’t need to go down to bare wood, but we did need to rough up the surface enough for the paint to adhere, while also smoothing out existing imperfections. It looks like at some point these cabinets were polyurethaned in place, so a lot of them were covered in dried-on bumpy drips or traces of old adhesive or other nastiness that had to be worked out.

cabinetsbefore

SIDE NOTE. Before anyone gets up in my grill about painting perfectly nice wood cabinets!, know this: these cabinets were totally disgusting and totally gauged and messed up and terrible. They’re going to look way better painted, and refinishing them would have been a ton of horrible work for a really mediocre outcome and then everyone would be so sad.

OK. That’s settled. I said so.

fillingholes

After sanding everything, we wiped it all down with a damp cloth and a little slightly soapy water and patched all the old hardware holes! Originally, I thought maybe I’d reuse the old hardware to save some time and money, but it was really corroded and generally destroyed to the point that even Barkeeper’s Friend couldn’t save it, and I didn’t like it enough to spray paint, so it had to go. We’ll reuse the hinges, though.

We used Ready Patch for the holes, which is really a spackle compound made for walls, but I like it for small applications like this. I haven’t had good experiences with most wood fillers since they always tend to dry sort of grainy and weird, even after sanding (except for Bondo, but that would have been major overkill), and I didn’t want to have a visual textural difference where the holes were patched, so I figured this was my best bet at a seamless finish. I wouldn’t recommend a gypsum-based product for wood repair in any case where it has to hold up to heavy wear and tear, or any patch much bigger than something like this.

sandingholes

After the Ready Patch was dry (a few hours out in the sun), I went over all the holes again with a little mouse sander. A sanding block would have been just as good, but this made the whole process super fast.

paintingdrawerfronts

The painting part is where having a good plan and system and dedicated staging area would have really come in handy. I’m not really sure what we were thinking, but we ended up painting the doors and drawer fronts days apart, and the whole process dragged on forever. It could have been WAY easier if we just took the time and set it all up and did everything en masse, but…I don’t know. There was a lot going on. I wasn’t thinking. Chaos.

We did up our speed and efficiency moderately, though, by using a roller to coat the surfaces and then quickly following up with a paintbrush. This might be controversial, and call me crazy, but I really don’t like the look of painted furniture when it has any kind of roller texture. Short of spray painting everything or using oil paint (spray paint doesn’t allow for the color selection and would get really expensive, and both spray and oil are hassles), it’s hard to literally have no texture when painting cabinets, so I guess I’d just rather see very subtle brush strokes than very subtle roller bumpiness. It’s a weird personal preference thing. I can’t explain it.

To minimize either, though, it helps to water down the paint a little bit. It wasn’t hard or terribly time-consuming to paint this stuff, so I didn’t mind doing 3 coats instead of 2 and waiting a little longer for it to cure. We used the same Clark + Kensington paint on the cabinets that we used on the walls, but the thickness of the paint that makes it great for walls isn’t exactly what you want for the texture of cabinets.

The color of the base cabinets is called Arabian Nights, by the way, and we used the Satin Enamel formula, which isn’t as shiny as semi-gloss but still totally wipeable and has a nice sheen to it. I love the color——like a super dark inky grey-blue-black. It’s going to look sooooo good.

tealights

We painted the doors the same way as the drawers, with the added help of a big bag of tea lights from the as-is section of IKEA! They were perfect for putting under the four corners to hold them off the ground a little, so paint didn’t puddle or anything. I felt very smug and clever about this.

Maxpainting

While this drawer/door shenanigans were going on, we were also painting the cabinet frames! We prepped the cabinets by sanding all of the frames (there was so much dust and disarray in the room anyway that adding more didn’t really matter) and then caulked the seams, since gaps between the frames would be extra-noticeable once they’re painted. We didn’t prime the lower cabinets, but since we’re painting the upper cabinets white, we figured it would be worthwhile to do a coat of primer first, just to ensure that anything in the wood was sealed in and wouldn’t eventually visibly leech through the paint. Paint + primer types of paints are GREAT for covering dark-colored walls and stuff, but if stain-blocking is a concern, it’s safer to just go ahead and prime. We used the same B-I-N shellac-based primer that we’ve used on other parts of the room.

Also, look! Max is painting! All this kind of stuff has always been really more *my thing*, but there is way too much to do in this house for me to take it all on by myself (or with amazing friends, when we’re lucky enough to have them). It’s already made us so much better at working together on stuff like this, and I’m really proud of Max for being open to learning how to do things, even if it isn’t where his interests necessarily lie. He’s good, that one.

I mostly just wanted to use this picture because Max’s chosen painting outfit of a bathing suit and one of my t-shirts is really cute. He has thusfar refused to sacrifice any of his real wardrobe to a dedicated DIY outfit. Shall we wager how long that lasts?

grout

Sometime during all of this, I also grouted the tile! Grouting tile (especially with black grout) is one of those scary and awful experiences, but once it’s done…

tilelightswitches

Oh yes. Hello. I want to lick you.

The corner and the gaps between the sink and the tile still need to be caulked and the wall and molding still need to be painted in this picture, but still. Tile. It makes my world go round.

I also changed all the light switches and outlets! I don’t know why, but this was honestly one of the best improvements in the kitchen to date. Changing light switches is INCREDIBLY quick, cheap, and easy, and just immediately makes things feel fresh and updated. I chose to use these flat switches instead of normal toggle switches. They’re slightly more expensive (like $2.50 instead of $1, something like that), but I think they look nicer.

gfci

I chose to install GFCI receptacles for all of the kitchen outlets, which is now required by National Electrical Code for kitchens and bathrooms. Each outlet costs about $13, which is kind of a drag, but it’s nice to make things safer and all that. GFCI outlets install a little differently than normal outlets, but it’s still something pretty easy that anyone can do, assuming you have access to turn off the power from your electrical panel first! (here’s a video if you also want fancy GFCI outlets with subtly modern little green lights on them. The outlet will also come with semi-clear instructions to help you out.)

linus

Here is an action-packed picture of Linus assisting with the great cabinet effort of July, 2013, since clearly I’ve run out of things to talk about and it’s lame to end a post talking about electrical outlets.

Paint and Tile!

painting

I used to think painting was the worst thing in the world. I was OK with the part that came before——spackling a few holes, a little sanding, maybe cleaning the walls a little——and I liked the part that came after, when the room was painted. But the actual process of painting——the endless cutting-in, the rolling, the paint drips and splatters and going to sleep with dried paint in my hair and under my finger nails——those were all things I dreaded.

But by the time I finally filled all the holes with patching compound and filled the gaps with caulk and de-greased and de-caulked and got through all the prep work in my kitchen, painting kind of felt like fun arts-n-crafts time? Like a nice way to kick back and relax? Maybe I actually like painting? Maybe I’m going through a very confusing identity crisis? Maybe my whole perception of reality has been irrevocably altered?

paintcans

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you might have noticed that I’m a very firm believer in buying good paint, which for me has always meant Benjamin Moore. It’s what my mom always used in our house growing up, and it’s what I’ve always used by myself, save for once making the enormous mistake of using really cheap paint at a friend’s house and discovering sometime around my 4th or 5th coat that quality really does make a huge difference when it comes to coverage, adhesion, durability, and the final result looking good. From then on, I just accepted that my future would be composed of $40-$50 gallons of paint, and that was that. That’s more or less OK when you’re looking at a small apartment with a landlord willing to cover $20/gallon, but it sort of blows when you’re looking at a whole house of walls, doors, and moldings literally begging and pleading to be repaired and freshly painted.

So, when Ace Hardware offered to let me try out their new-ish brand of paint and primer in one, Clark + Kensington, I decided to take the chance. I warned them that my allegiance was elsewhere, and that it’s my policy to always give honest reviews and they’d have to be as OK with me not liking the paint as they were sure that I would, and they agreed. So confident. So sure of themselves.

Real talk: this paint is dope. I was really expecting it to be pretty mediocre, but I found it to be pretty much on-par with the Aura line of Benjamin Moore paints——which is quite an endorsement, because that’s some fancy paint—— except about $30 per gallon instead of over $60. This is hard for me to say, but…I think I’m converted!

The paint can also be color-matched to several different brands (including Benjamin Moore and Farrow & Ball), but I wanted to check out the Clark + Kensington colors for myself! And by colors, I mean various shades of black and white. You know how I do.

ceiling

As usual, I started by cutting in the ceiling. This was a massive pain in the tuchus because the seams in the sheetrock on the ceiling are covered in those thin wooden strips rather than taped and mudded, so all of that needed to be painted by hand. I used a regular roller for the panels in between.

Check out how gross that ceiling is. It is the most gross.

disaster

With the ceiling all painted with two coats of Designer White in Flat Enamel (which is a pre-mixed off-the-shelf white, which I’m using on the moldings and upper cabinets, too), we started in on the walls and cabinets! I’ll save the cabinet painting for another post, but this was about the stage when I started to get really excited about the kitchen. It was also a period of sort of non-stop marathon crazy work in here, which is why this photo was taken at like 2 in the morning and everything is a total disaster.

I stayed up super late painting, and in the morning….

disasterafter

ANGELS SANG.

There really is nothing better than fresh paint.

I know this picture might not look like much since obviously the doors and moldings still need to be painted, and I didn’t paint the backsplashes, but getting the walls over with was an incredible feeling. I used a color called Casablanca on the walls, which is an extremely pale grey. Obviously it reads as very white, but it’s different enough from the ceiling and molding to give the room a little more dimension than if everything was the same shade.

beforeprogress

Words can’t even describe, y’all.

tilefirstrow2

That night, my friend Nora and I also put in the first row of tiles! Sorry about the horrendous nighttime iPhone shots. These are just plain old American Olean white 3×6 subway tiles from Lowes, which are super cheap at about $.22/tile. I know it might seem silly to install tile backsplashes in a kitchen that we aren’t planning to keep forever, but I already had the thinset and black grout from tiling my kitchen in the apartment, so for about $100 for all of the tile, it seemed like a really worthwhile aesthetic and functional upgrade to just go for it. Also, Nora wanted to learn to tile, and I believe in being a gracious host by making my friends work super hard until the wee hours of the morning in July with no A/C in exchange for letting them sleep on a shitty air mattress and cook for me. That’s just manners.

Since I just did a whole tutorial on tiling backsplashes (here and here), it didn’t seem necessary to rehash the whole process again, especially since I would have done a few things differently if it needed to last forever. Obviously, I didn’t paint the backsplashes or really prep them at all first (in a perfect world, I wouldn’t be using drywall as backing at all!), and I barely planned out how the tile would run before just slapping them on the walls. And yes, I used cardboard and stir sticks to hold up my first row instead of something more rigid and precise. And yes, I started the tiles at the top edge of the base cabinets, not the countertops, because with the height of the upper cabinets, this was the best way to cover the most surface area of the backsplashes with tile without having a huge weird gap at the top, if that makes sense. So yeah. It’s not perfect, but it’s still going to look totally fine when everything is done. “Totally fine” is kind of this room’s guiding principle, lest you haven’t noticed.

thinset

I’m just including this picture because I got smart and bought myself a stirring attachment for my drill to mix the thinset and grout. CHANGED. MY. LIFE. Stirring thinset with a paint stick or a spoon or whatever is really difficult and tiring (you’re supposed to mix for 5 minutes, let it sit, then mix it again for 5 more minutes), and this handy attachment just takes all of that work away. FYI.

tile

The next day, after the bottom row had time to harden up, we mixed up more thinset and got back to work! I really should have planned this so that the end of the run (where it meets the vertical trim pieces, not the corner) would be composed of full and half-tiles instead of these weird in-between fraction tiles, but I didn’t do that. Oh well. Again, with everything done and grouted and the room complete, it’ll be fine. I’m just pointing it out because I’m human and I make mistakes and mistakes are bound to happen, and now I know better! (and my bathroom/future kitchen tiling will be PERFECTION. Mark my words. I know things now.)

tileprogress

tilesink

First I thought I’d do the subway tile level all the way around the room (so the backsplashes and this sink area would all have the same number of rows of tile), but then that seemed a little too dinky for here. Then I thought maybe I’d take the tile all the way to the ceiling (well, to the bottom of the big hollow soffit over the sink, anyway) in this sink area, but that had a whole mess of complications I won’t bore you with, including maybe just looking weird. Then I used the super-professional method of eyeballing it until the proportions seemed right, which is why there are more tiles here than the other areas of the kitchen. Science!

Overall, there was just a ton of fudging and making it work and eventually throwing my arms up with a hearty GOOD ENOUGH! in this area around the sink. Trying to get tiles to line up on three wonky walls with the sink and the window molding was just…not going to happen. With everything painted, caulked, and grouted, though…well, you know what I’m going to say already. It’s going to be totally fine. Nice, even. I promise!

This post is in partnership with Ace Hardware.

The Doors are Open!

before1

before-2

When our house was divided into two units in the days of yore, one of the more unfortunate-looking alterations was blocking off these two doors right inside the entryway. The one in the top photo leads to the front parlor (accessible through a door in the dining room), and the one in the second photo leads to the big living room (accessible through another door in the back of the entryway. You can see how this looks on the floor plan here.). Luckily, the original doors were right on the other side of the plywood, but unfortunately they were both locked! It kind of begs the question of why the additional plywood barrier was really necessary at all, but then again, old houses come with a lot of questions about why things were done the way they were done.

My best guess is that blocking the doors this way was an attempt to further insulate the downstairs apartment from heat loss and sound, particularly if the owners chose not to heat the entryway, since it wasn’t part of anyone’s living space. You can kind of tell in the pictures that instead of just nailing the plywood up and calling it a day, whoever did this also took the time to smear a bunch of wood putty over all the nail holes and surrounding the entire edge of plywood, creating an impenetrable seal that made it more or less impossible to rip the plywood down from the front without totally messing up the surrounding moldings. Fun!

I thought we’d rip this plywood down on, like, day 1 in the house, but that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen on days 2 or 3 or 4 or 5, either, and after living this way for a few weeks, I just hit my limit of having ugly plywood sheets erected in my entryway. There’s only so much a person can take!

keys

Like most old houses, ours came with a big heavy box of keys. Almost none of the keys are labelled, so I have no idea what most of them do or if they even match any existing locks, but I was hopeful that one of the 5 skeleton keys would have to fit the locked doors.

Nope. Of course not.

We went down to the local locksmith shop, and after re-trying all of our keys, he moved on to a huge handful of skeleton keys he brought with him. No dice. Naturally.

Instead, he had to go back to the shop and make us a custom key. I would take a picture, but of course now I’ve misplaced it among our renovation disaster. We don’t really have any reason to ever lock these doors, but I hope I can find it somewhere, since we spent like $80 on all this drama and I want my souvenir.

ANYWAY. Locksmiths are magicians. He got the doors open. There was much rejoicing.

doorsblocked1

At some point, I started to wonder what was in that 6-ish inch space between the plywood and the door. Maybe there would be hidden jewels! Stacks of money! A family of borrowers!

There was none of these things. Instead, there was a big panel of weird fiberboard sheathing stuff, similar to homasote. Then with that out of the way, there were also pieces of wood running horizontally behind the plywood, nailed into the door frame. The horizontal boards were then wood-glued and nailed to the plywood, and all of the edges had received a generous coating of caulk, just for good measure.

So thorough. So impressive. So annoying.

I had thought that with the doors open, I’d be able to just knock down the plywood by running at it and throwing my body against it until it came tumbling down, a strategy I learned from handsome men encountering locked doors on TV. But with all these added reinforcements, that seemed like a recipe for a couple broken ribs, so the shrimpy nervous Jew side of me re-evaluated.

crossbraces

I started by removing all of the visible nails that I could from the doorframe with a pry bar.

jigsaw

Since the plywood still wouldn’t budge, even with the nails gone (shocker!), I broke out my jigsaw and just started cutting out sections of the wood, all haphazard and sloppy-like.

debris

Then I started kicking out sections, like the man-beast that I have become.

I went so H-A-M on this plywood, you guys. So very H-A-M.

actionshot

This action shot doesn’t begin to portray how badass I was in this moment.

Nothing can portray how badass I was. You just have to believe.

vogue

Here I am, vogueing, you know, as you do. I realize now that this post would be so much more primal and saucy if I had been naked behind that piece of plywood.

NEXT TIME.

linus

Before long, the doors were open! There was light! There was air circulation! There were new ways to get from room to room! SO. EXCITING. OMFG.

Pausing for a second, this view is the exact reason why I have no real interest in altering the existing layout of our house. I love the amount of symmetry and order that the original layout has——the way that these doors are directly across from each other (the angle of the photo makes them look a little off, but they aren’t), which is repeated with the other door to the big living room and the dining room, and the doors from the parlor to the dining room to the kitchen. A lot of people (both here on the blog and in real life) keep suggesting that I do things like widen the entry into the front parlor or open up the wall between the front room and the dining room, but that would completely throw off the proportions and sense of order that I think make the interior layout of this house really special. Designing a house this way doesn’t just happen by accident, and I think it would be an enormous mistake to start futzing with things like that.

I tried explaining this to Linus, who clearly doesn’t care.

mekko2

We get it, Mekko, you’re a beauty queen. We’re trying to talk about doors, here.

Now we just have to take the vestibule wall down! I can’t believe we closed on the house almost 2 months ago and it’s still there! The deal I made with myself is that I’d do that as SOON as the kitchen is done (celebratory demo is kind of like champagne, yes?), which means its days are verrrrrry numbered.

 

Endless Prep Work in the Kitchen

beforeandbetter

Our kitchen renovation seemed straightforward enough.

Step 1. Remove all the yuck.

Step 2. Paint all the things.

Step 3. Yay new kitchen!

But there’s this finicky little step between steps 1 and 2 that I may not have totally accounted for in my mental schedule of events (in which our kitchen has been long done by now because, you know, it’ll take like 4 days start to finish). That step is called PREP. And there is so much of it.

A quick word about this renovation: this is not really the kitchen we intend to have forever. It was probably installed in the 1950s, and was done using pretty cheap materials, even at the time. I think most potential buyers saw this space as a total gut-job (probably one of the several reasons the house sat vacant for 2+ years), but with all the other work that needs to be done in the house, there is just NO way we’re about to gut and replace an entire kitchen. Even though the kitchen looked terrible, the cabinets are solid wood and workable (not in great condition, and not nice cabinets to begin with, but there are lots of them!), the fridge is fine, etc. etc. All of that is good news, since I don’t want to rush designing and planning the layout and materials of whatever kitchen we end up installing here. We want to get at least a few more years out of the existing kitchen, and Max and I both feel like it’s top priority to have a space where it’s actually nice to prepare a meal and feel comfortable and clean——both for ourselves and guests. Especially when we’re in the midst of doing so much other work, I think having a nice kitchen will go a long way toward maintaining our sanity.

The point is, this kitchen is a very extended exercise in trying to do things on the mega-cheap without compromising quality and aesthetics (ideally, I’d like to spend $500-$1,000 total in here). We also want to get it done quickly so that we have more time to devote to other stuff (and, obviously, so we have a kitchen!), so we also need to strike a balance between doing things perfectly and 100% right and just doing things so they’re good enough to last as long as this kitchen realistically needs to. All of this is my way of explaining that seasoned renovators might be rolling their eyes and gasping in horror at some of the decisions I’ve made during the process, but just remember that this kitchen isn’t forever.

SO. ANYWAY. PREP. When we left off, I’d been busy patching all the walls and ceiling from where the drop ceiling had been attached (holes in the walls, holes in the ceiling, holes everywhere) and generally lamenting the state of everything. It felt like maybe it would only be a couple of days until I was happily painting the walls and feeling very satisfied and validated about all my hard work, but every time I turned around, it seemed like there was more craziness to un-do and conquer before paint could happen. I’ve painted a lot of rooms at this point in my life, and this one far surpasses any amount of work I’ve ever had to do to get a space prepped. That includes sanding all of the walls of my apartment hallway. Neva4get.

This was a dark time.

backsplashes

One thing that had been staring me in the face was the fancy contact-paper backsplashes. I won’t lie, I kind of like this cutesy poppy pattern, but the paper was in bad shape and generally dirty and gross and completely at odds with the plan for this room, so it had to go.

I might have saved a scrap of it for…whatever reason. This kitchen has turned my brain to mush.

Consider this a PSA: don’t put contact paper on your backsplashes. Don’t then leave it there for 50 years. This stuff was a NIGHTMARE to get off. It’s possible some kind of wallpaper remover would have helped, but it seemed like a really small area and wasn’t worth the hassle. We don’t have a steamer (heard very mixed things about their usefulness from a lot of different people, and now I’m crippled with indecision), but I did try to loosen some of it with my iron on the steam setting. This made zero difference.

The only thing to do was peel, in tiny pieces, forever. It became like a kind of sick game, where every time a scrap came loose larger than about the size of a child’s palm, I would rejoice and cackle in manic glee. I played this for hours, until the laughter became tears.

caulk

Next I turned my attention to the sink area. Remember that thing I mentioned about everything in our house being fixed with caulk, various types of tape, and metal wire?

Well. The sink area is a very good example. Check out how the sink is totally, like, being swallowed by the wall in the first picture. That’s all caulk. See the wall above the sink and to the right? ALSO ALL CAULK.

Yeah. Not only had the edges of the sink been filled and covered and overflowed with years of very hard, very serious caulk, the walls had also been skim-coated with it. I suppose this is a semi-valid way to waterproof this area around the sink, so I respect the ingenuity. But that is just…not what caulk is for.

Since this area is also getting tiled, I had to do my best to remove all the caulk and level the surfaces.

There’s this episode of The X-Files in which Scully gets kidnapped by deranged small-townsfolk who worship a bulbous yellow-ish worm thing that needs a human host to survive. It burrows in a person’s back, along the upper vertebrae, and sort of incubates there for a while before killing the host and moving on. It’s all very gory and horrific.

This caulk was a lot like that. Big and bulbous and yellow and emerging from around the sink like a thick moldy worm thing. I was legitimately a little frightened of it. The amount of caulk removed from this area was bananas. It had actual weight when I put it all in a bag to throw it away. It was heavy.

Shudder. Horrors. Caulk horrors.

cuttinginfloor

In an attempt to feel better about things, I needed to get some paint on something. This seemed like as good a time as any to throw some primer on the floor. Since the original linoleum tiles pretty much popped up en masse, the plan is to just paint this plywood underlayment black. It won’t be the fanciest floor in the world, but I think the black paint will make the imperfections less noticeable, and a kitchen rug on top will keep it from seeming like our floor is made of sadness.

I’d LOVE to rip up this underlayment and expose the original pine plank subfloor, but that’s probably going to wait for the REAL kitchen renovation down the line. Aside from having to remove the radiator and base cabinets to make that happen, there’s a whole SECOND layer of linoleum and plywood underlayment under this plywood underlayment, and then we don’t really know what the subfloor is even going to look like when we get down to it. It could have rot (doesn’t look like it from the basement, but that’s the bottom side…) or tons of damage, or be hideous, or whatever, and we’re just not ready to deal with that whole process. I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I have to refinish a floor OR cover it up with new flooring (and new underlayment…), both of which would suck more time and money from our lives that we don’t have.

priming

SO. I decided to paint the floor with Zinsser B-I-N Shellac-base primer, which is the same stuff I used in Max’s childhood bedroom. I like this line of primers generally, but the shellac stuff is AMAZING for blocking/sealing in all kinds of weird grossness, and it goes on super thin, dries EXTREMELY fast (like 15 minutes), and provides a good surface for paint to adhere to.

I prepped the floor basically just by sweeping and vacuuming it (use the wand to get into all the edges and corners, where dust and debris tend to accumulate), and then I painted it like I would anything else——cutting in around the edges, roller on the rest. I just used a regular old roller made for semi-smooth surfaces and it worked great. The paint is sort of self-leveling since it’s so thin, so it didn’t leave any roller texture once it dried.

I also decided to paint the hearth, since it was so little extra effort and it seemed like a good idea. Even though I cleaned it really well, it still probably had some wallpaper paste/grease remnants that might have messed up the regular paint adhesion and coverage.

floorafterpaint

Even though it’s just a coat of primer and the floor is going to be black, not white, painting this felt SO GOOD. It happened really fast and COMPLETELY changed the feeling of the room. All of a sudden, it felt like a blank canvas full of possibilities instead of a shoddy room full of gross shit and generally lousy vibes. We won’t paint the floor until after the walls and cabinets are painted (since I don’t want to paint the floor and then drip paint on my newly painted floor while painting the walls, you know?), but anyway. FINALLY! PAINT!

radiator1

After the floor was primed, I was feeling extra excited and paint-happy, so I decided to paint the radiator! This radiator was…so vile. Same dirty-custard yellow as the walls, covered in tons of grease and dirt and dust and grime. I spent a long time cleaning it,  starting with a flexible dryer vent brush (mine is like this, and it’s the best thing ever for cleaning old radiators!) and finishing with reaching my gloved hands as far into that spaces as they would fit to try to further clean it. The whole thing was very gross and enlightening and took about 2 hours.

Once it was prepped, I taped some cardboard onto the wall behind it. Since the room still needs paint on the walls and the floor, I didn’t care so much about getting off-spray on anything in the surrounding area. However, it’s going to be basically impossible to paint fully behind the radiator (the space between the back of the radiator and the drywall is only about 1/2″!), so I didn’t want to get a bunch of paint back there that I wouldn’t be able to cover up.

highheatpaint

I chose this high-heat glossy spray paint in black for the radiator. Because who doesn’t love a black radiator?

The folks at the hardware store assured me that any type of spray paint would probably be fine for a radiator, but I wanted to play it safe with the high-heat. Rust-oleum actually makes a radiator enamel specifically for this, but it wasn’t at the hardware store and I figured it was probably more or less the same stuff.

radiatorpainting

The actual painting part went really fast. I did about 3 light coats to fully cover it, and used 2 cans of spray paint. I know it would have been better to remove the radiator, power-wash the whole thing, paint it in a well-ventilated space with access to all sides (or better yet, sand-blast and powder coat it!), but all of that would have been way too much time and way too much effort for this. This solution only cost me some scrap cardboard and about $12 in spray paint.

radiatorpainted

I need to take better pictures when the room starts to come together (this one is terrible, apologies!!), but the radiator looks soooooooo gooooooood. It’s like super beautiful and jet black and shiny and amazing. Once everything around it doesn’t look so crappy, it’s going to be great. Trust.

beforeandprogress

I don’t have a picture from this angle after the radiator got painted, but you can imagine. Getting there…

p.s.—I did a little interview thingy over at West Elm’s blog, Front&Main! In case you want to read me blather on about thrifting and being cheap and Brooklyn and stuff, you can find it here

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