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!

Kitchen and Pantry: 2018 Edition + 2019 Plans

Oh, did you think this was a reveal post? A real meat-n-potatoes before and after? You’re so CUTE! It’s not done. Don’t get crazy.

It’s been about nine months since we talked about my kitchen and pantry, though—the two rooms at the back of the house that have undergone the most extensive changes of any part of the house. I’d recommend giving that last post a read-through if you want to get a sense of the whole sequence of events! Normally 9 months would be an adequate amount of time to comfortably complete a kitchen renovation, not to mention the two years that preceded it, but…well, not in this house! This is a huge project that has required changes to every single wall—interior and exterior—which of course took serious time on its own and occured in the background of a bunch of other huge projects that also take a lot of time and attention.

It’s also an EXPENSIVE project, as kitchens tend to be—a lot more expensive than you might expect given the fact that I’m doing the vast majority of the work myself and avoiding a lot of huge expenses that normal kitchen renovations might have—a tiled floor, for instance, or all new appliances or custom cabinets. I still EASILY managed to budget out $25,000—almost entirely materials—before I freaked out and lit my computer on fire. That’s serious money that I do not have! If you’re really interested we can get into how that breaks down, but that would entail me actually looking at the Excel document that spit out that number which…eh, I’d rather not. 

SO ANYWAY. 

Major progress was made in 2018, so let’s discuss! Less than a year ago I was still cooking on a hot plate in the dining room and running to the upstairs bathroom whenever I needed the luxury of running water, and I had my dishwasher draining into a bucket, sooooo. Things have improved immensely, slow as it may be!

This is the south wall, which is the side of the house I just finished up working on this fall, sporting its new windows! For reference, more or less in that space between the two new windows, there used to be a large doorway with a transom window leading out into the now-demolished, then-deteriorating solarium. Around the middle of the window on the right, there was a wall that separated the kitchen from what was originally a back staircase (removed in the 1930s), which had been turned into two closets, which I made into one long skinny closet that housed my old pantry

JUST A FEW SMALL ALTERATIONS. NO BIGGIE.

I think last time we saw my old laundry space, it was looking something like this. Now that I have a new second floor laundry space, I no longer mourn the loss of this one, but…man. Gutting that (perfectly nice, totally functional, already renovated) room felt so horrible at the time. I felt confident in my plan but I was still worried I’d regret it, and I really can’t even explain how chaotic the house felt at the time. So purposefully creating EVEN MORE CHAOS was just all around extremely unappealing, but it had to happen for everything to proceed. Sometimes you make a big mess.

I think I can comfortably say I’ve seen the upper asscrack of everyone I’ve ever worked on a renovation with. That doesn’t mean you get to. It’s earned, not given. 

With the old laundry room all gutted out, as well as the bathroom on the other side, and the new window/exterior door placements all squared away, it was time to take care of the last of the framing work! It never ends! One of the things I’d like to spend a little time doing is mocking up the original layout of these spaces, from what I’ve been able to tell during renovation. It’s amazing how many times the back of the house appears to have changed to suit different periods and needs as the house moved from having servants to being divided into apartments to (maybe?) being restored to a single family before being divided again. 

So with this iteration, I’m stealing the space that the first floor bathtub used to occupy (yes, otherwise known as the corpse tub), turning that bathroom into a half-bath, and using the stolen space for the fridge and pantry space. Haunted fridge! I also had that waste line from the upstairs bathroom re-routed to fit between the wall that divides the new half-bath from the pantry. It’s so nice not having to box it in!

Finally. The entrance to the new pantry space got moved over a few feet from where it was and enlarged. I wanted a nice flow between the spaces but definitely am not going for “open concept,” so essentially I replicated the doorway that used to be on the other side of the room that led to the old solarium. So it’s wide and tall and will have a transom window and it’s all fake but I think will easily pass as original. Except for the part where I tell everyone.

And JUST WHEN YOU THINK you’re done, you remember that you still have to frame in the ceilings in the pantry and half-bath. Easy enough, but just like…really?! MORE?! Then I laid new 3/4″ plywood subfloors right on top of the existing floors—the kitchen is actually built a bit lower than the rest of the house, so this works out because now all the floors should be level with each other, and it meant a lot less demo! I’m not usually a “slap another layer on” type of renovator, but in this case it made sense. 

Then electric and plumbing went in, which of course was a whole rigamarole too. New sink location. New stove location. New everything locations. Unreliable plumbers. Same shit.

I’m not not a little proud of my garbage little sink stand I made to fit a stainless steel sink that came out of a project a few years ago. Hey, it’s a sink!! IN THE KITCHEN! It only took a mere 19 months from the removal of the other sink! Right on schedule; just fabulous. 

At this point it was April, and I knew it was going to be a supremely busy spring/summer, between freelance work and the projects at my house I really needed to prioritize during the warm weather, like resolving a ton of exterior work. At some point I made peace with the realization that there was no way in hell this kitchen was getting done for another year or more. And really? That’s fine. Totally fine. I can work with undone as long as it functions reasonably OK, and it would give me ample time to use the space, really settle on finishes and things, and address any possible errors in judgment up to this point before all the finishing work is done and it becomes a massive pain to change anything. 

I’m fickle. In case that was not painfully clear. 

I began putting up walls—but probably not the walls you were expecting! More plywood! I did this for a few reasons:

  1. I had a lot of scrap around, so I could do part of the room that way. Free is good! I could also manage the pieces myself.
  2. I know, kind of, that I want some treatment around the lower part of the room, and at the time thought vertical beadboard. Since then I have tossed around approximately 7,000 more ideas and it could end up being anything. Rather than installing a ton of blocking or adding furring strips, plywood turns the whole surface into one big nailer, which makes install easy. Added to this, plywood is a very stable material that doesn’t expand and contract like regular lumber, so it helps avoid movement of a finish material like beadboard over time. I picked this up from a restoration friend of mine and I think it’s a good tip!  
  3. It’s modular! If I need to make changes to the electric (which—surprise!—I do need a few changes), it’s easy to take the ply down to add outlets or re-set boxes at a desired height and depth, etc. It’ll also be easy to swap with drywall if I end up tiling.

At long, long last, it was finally time to say goodbye to the exposed ceiling joists, that ugly insulation, the dust-shedding backside of the plaster dining room wall…I have no words. It was the best.

I gladly hired Edwin and Edgar to hang, tape, and skim the drywall. I’m glad I did. In a few days it was done, and that’s a beautiful thing. I used Purple XP drywall in a 5/8″ thickness, which is mold and mildew resistant and has a high-density gypsum core, making it a lot more substantial than your regular 1/2″ lightweight drywall. I like a solid wall.

Bear in mind that I have not had walls or a ceiling since this kitchen renovation started so many moons ago, and open walls/ceilings swallow up a lot of natural light. I’d gotten used to the kitchen feeling…not dark, I guess, but not what I had in mind when I tore off two additions, a fire escape, installed four large new windows and a big doorway into another room with another window and a half-lite door. YA KNOW?!

AND THEN I REMEMBERED WHAT THE WHOLE IDEA HAS BEEN ALL ALONG, which is a big (well, not too big) bright beautiful kitchen!  IT’S ALL HAPPENING. Walls. Ceilings. Both such nice things to have. FYI.

Now it is the end of April. Which means it’s time for outside work to commence. Which means it’s time to wrap this shit up for at least the next 6 months or so. I gave myself a single weekend to make it happen.

Watch carefully. I was like a madman. 

First, I cleaned off the skim-coated walls and ceiling of compound dust and hit them with one single thin coat of primer. This seals in any dust and makes the walls a little wipeable. Parts of the walls will need more compound and/or caulk as I get around to things like installing moldings, so there didn’t seem to be a lot of sense in really painting. Just a little painting. 

Then I pulled a gallon I’d labeled “Frankengrey” out of the basement and hit the plywood walls with it. I ran out of paint so I didn’t do the pantry, just the kitchen. I was SUPREMELY lazy with this paint job and a little pleased with myself for it not even being the worst-looking thing ever. Like literally I just turned my roller sideways and ran it along the top of the plywood and I don’t care at all that it’s not a perfect line or anything. It’s fine. It’s all fine! Tape is for squares. 

AND THEN. THE PIÈCE DE RÉSISTANCE. I pulled all my half-empty little cans of dark wood stain out, threw them in a bucket, mixed in some mineral spirits, and stained that damn plywood subfloor. Because IDGAFFFFFFFFF.

Then I sealed it with a gallon of Bona Traffic HD that I found at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore for about 94% off retail cost. I don’t want to live with an unsealed plywood floor, especially in a kitchen, but if I can mop it? SURE WHY NOT. 

This is also a good opportunity to try out having dark wood floors! An admission, friends: I’ve lived in my house for almost 6 years and haven’t refinished the floors (which desperately need it) but, worse, I don’t even know what I want to do with them. The hardwood flooring is a later addition so nothing is really “correct”…it’s more a matter of what will look good? I’ve definitely seen very dark floors look great in houses of this vintage—I feel like it helps them sort of fade into the background so things like rugs and furniture can shine. 

But. I think. I’ve decided that. I DON’T LIKE THESE DARK FLOORS. They’re…well…dark, for starters. And they seem to show everything. Not nearly the way my white painted floor in my little office used to, but enough that they don’t stay looking clean for more than a few hours after mopping. With two dogs going in and out of the backyard a hundred times a day, I just don’t think the very dark floor lifestyle is a match for me.

So. That’s been informative.

Do you like my 1/4″ plywood window casings?! Thank you I worked very hard on them.

I moved in what’s left of my old kitchen cabinets and topped them with an 8′ piece of butcherblock from Lowe’s, and placed my life-saving induction burners where the range will eventually materialize. I found a little antique work table and stuck that in there as an island, too.

I threw down this kinda hideous, kinda great rug just to brighten her up a little, some furniture and shelving and an art and BADABOOM, GODDAMN IT, IT’S A KITCHEN. I mean I’m not congratulating myself on it being gorgeous but HEY, it doesn’t look like a construction site totally either?! That’s progress. 

I’m not sure I can adequately express how nice it was to finally get the fridge and this dresser out of the dining room! The dresser has been very helpful as extra kitchen storage while I’m working with so few cabinets. I opted to just plywood everything in this room for the same reasons as the lower half of the kitchen—except this room is going to be ALL cabinetry and woodwork. 

Speaking of—this may sound weird, but I’m actually going to prioritize the pantry over finishing the kitchen. The reason being in part that it’s smaller and more achievable, and part that it’s practically going to be a very small kitchen itself (fridge, sink, and those induction hot plates are portable!), and therefore can do kitchen things during the eventual period that I’m doing finishing work in the kitchen. Check back in 2031.

Also. I have new plans. I’m excited about them. Ready. Let’s go.

Here’s what I had last time we went over this goddamn thing:

But I’ve had some thoughts since then. They look like this:

Thensies:

Nowsies: 

OK so a few changes have taken place. The concept has changed.

Before, I was thinking the pantry would be finished off the same way as the kitchen. This house was built circa 1865, so a Victorian-style kitchen doesn’t really feel right, as beautiful as they are—I think the vibe has to be more primitive and understated. 

But the pantry is an addition to the kitchen, not an original part of it. So. New vibes are:

Maybe this was a little porch (it wasn’t, unless it was? TBH, no idea).

That was enclosed during Victorian times, because they did that kind of thing sometimes (it wasn’t…but was it?). 

And so it feels like a little enclosed porch, fitted in Victorian-style built-ins to maximize storage, beadboard ceiling, nice moldings, beautiful hardware; it’s real pretty. Trust me. 

Then. Instead of the wood floor, you do a REALLY GOOD tile, because it’s 40 square feet and you’ve worked your ass off and you should just get the nice tile because the world could end tomorrow and you don’t want to die knowing you should have just gone for it with the nice-ass tile.

Think about it.

Then you further justify the nice tile by reminding yourself that you “budgeted” (the budget you can in no way afford) for radiant heat flooring but have since decided against it, so that should really free up some money (that you’ve never had to begin with) to buy the super nice tile.

It all makes so much sense. Almost too much sense, honestly. 

So then. Instead of the tiny sink that was kind of hard to source anyway. Why not. Just have a stone sink custom made for your very special specs and then also have a countertop from the same material made for it. 

Think about it. Why not.

Here’s potentially why not: you’ve really put all your eggs in the basket of one vendor to do the fabrication at a very reasonable price, and now that vendor has repeatedly violated your trust and probably/definitely you should not attempt more business with them but you really fucking want that $250 custom sink?

Maybe it was too good to be true. But like, my life hinges on it. I’ve committed to it. 

Because I already built the cabinets!

*music swells*

*fade to black*

Next time, on Manhattan Nest.

PUPPY PUPPY PUPPY PUPPY PUPPY.

Well the spoiler is right there in the title, so let’s cut to the chase! A couple of days before Christmas, Mekko and I adopted a puppy! PUPPY!!!! What a joyful, adorable, and sleep-depriving way to ring in the new year!

As many of you likely know, about 14 months ago my little old dog Linus passed away. I took it hard but my other dog, Mekko, didn’t really seem to. They were a funny kind of a pair—Mekko was essentially adopted on a whim one January day in Brooklyn, and Linus arrived by happenstance a few months later when he was found as a stray. The idea that they—a rambunctious young 50-pound pit bull and a geriatric 12-pound white toy breed—might form some kind of special bond was irresistibly adorable, but it never totally came to pass. Mekko was always really gentle with Linus, and I think his sleepy laid-back nature had some calming effect on her, but that was about the extent of it. Instead they settled into a comfortable, arms-reach arrangement that worked for everyone. And while I never regretted keeping Linus for a second, I was always aware that he wasn’t exactly what Mekko might have chosen for a sibling if she had a say in the matter. At various times I even considered getting a third dog better suited to Mekko’s brand of fun, but the idea fizzled among work stress and financial constraints and wanting to avoid appearing like a crazy person intent on dying alone surrounded by a dozen rescue dogs who might then decide to eat my corpse. Do dogs do that? Asking for a friend. 

Throughout the last year, I’ve considered bringing the human to dog ratio in this house back up to 1:2. Approaching 9 years old (HOW?!), Mekko is still a bundle of playful energy, but I’m not so delusional that I think that will last forever. She’s technically considered a senior. In the spring and summer of 2018, she successfully underwent treatment for a mast cell tumor, plunging me into the exciting and extraordinarily expensive world of canine oncology. Part of me felt certain that another perfectly-imperfect dog would just drop, fully-formed, into my lap, but when that failed to actuate as the months ticked by I realized I might have to actually do something this time to make it happen. Nothing like a cancer diagnosis for one dog a few months after the death of your other dog to make time feel very limited and precious! I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t get around to this in time for Mekko to still enjoy it. 

So first, the goal was summer. Summer was really busy. Then the goal was fall—my birthday is in late September, so that seemed like a fun idea. But that was a really busy time, too, and I slowly started to recognize that what I was waiting for—a prolonged period when the timing felt right, the finances were comfy and work was slow (do these things ever go hand in hand?), and the house was well-prepared—was just not going to happen. There’s never a good time to upend your life, even if the change is relatively minor. The conditions are never just so. 

So thinking back on how Mekko and Linus entered my life, it struck me that a little impulsivity when it comes to decisions like this is kind of my modus operandi, and dog-related ones have historically not ended in any form of regret. Thinking about it too much was causing me to psych myself out. I already know how to have a dog. I already know how to have two dogs. This is ridiculous. Enough’s enough.

So I submitted an adoption application to a small local rescue organization. The approval came almost immediately, and to be honest I wasn’t sure I was going to do anything with it. On the night of December 22nd, I planned to spend December 23rd chipping away at house projects.  Then I woke up on December 23rd, took Mekko outside, and called the rescue. By noon, I was walking into a room containing 11 wiggly little tiny puppies, a litter freshly transported from a high-kill shelter down in Tennessee (this is super normal on the east coast—the south has an immense spay/neuter/overpopulation problem). They all came running toward me, which I feel bears repeating. ELEVEN. TINY. BABY. PUPPIES. RUNNING. AT. ME. I could have burst into tears, but I still wanted the lady to let me adopt one of them so I controlled myself. 

I didn’t tell anyone I was going. I spent about an hour picking up puppies, putting down puppies, snuggling puppies, and watching this huge, varied litter interact, trying to read the tea leaves on their itty bitty personalities to predict which one I thought would get along best with Mekko.

Do you know how hard it is to choose one puppy out of ELEVEN?! Guys. So hard. 

A couple stood out, but one of them—black and white with some brindle peeking through, and the most adorable speckled little nose—kept coming back. He was gentle and relatively calm. He sat in my lap on his back while I stroked his little bloated puppy belly. He came when I called him over, and sat down at my feet. I noticed he seemed to be particularly attentive to the woman who runs the rescue, even though he’d only been under her care for a couple of days. He was playful with his litter mates but not totally insane, preferring to participate when engaged but not really instigating. I just had a feeling. 

And by 3 in the afternoon, I was introducing Mekko to her new little brother. And my heart grew three sizes that day. The thing you can’t see in this photo is how fast Mekko’s tail was wagging as she sniffed this little guy all over for the first time. She was SO excited. He wasn’t quite sure yet, ha!

Then we went to the pet store and got some supplies, because that kind of advanced planning is, evidently, how we roll. And ya know what? Everything. Turned. Out. Fine. You figure it out. You rise to the occasion. It’s a big deal but a manageable one. 

I realized sometime during the car ride home that I actually have no idea what kind of dog he is. I keep asking him but he hasn’t learned to talk yet. The rescue listed the puppies as Lab/Hound mixes, which…sure. I think there’s definitely pit bull in there—which is really what I was looking for and assumed these guys were!—but the rest…who knows! I know there are DNA tests for this nowadays, but I kind of think the not-knowing is fun. Will he be 30 pounds or 80? Only time will tell!

He is settling RIGHT in. Like a lot of puppies with his background, he arrived with an active case of fleas and various intestinal parasites, so we’ve been working on resolving that. Turns out part of that adorable bloated puppy belly was because it was full of worms! How precious! How completely grotesque! Animals, am I right?

And then there’s THIS SHIT RIGHT HERE. He keeps trying to initiate cuddle time with Mekko, whose resolve appears to be waning by the day. Over the past few days they’ve REALLY started playing, and it’s just the cutest most special thing ever. Mekko could obviously devour him in one bite and he’s no match for her in a game of tug (hell, a lot of times I’m no match for her), but she’s so gentle with him and likes to let him selectively win so he comes back for more. She’s teaching him! My heart can’t take it! He’s also been taking good notes on Mekko’s advanced cuddle and napping techniques and really excelling in those areas.

I sort of hate to admit it, but I still haven’t named him! I know, I know. Don’t shame me!! Since he’s been under the weather while the worms, uh, evacuate, I just want to make sure his name fits his personality which is coming out more and more everyday. Also, I think part of the problem settling on a name may stem from having gotten too many opinions while we saw all these people over the holidays. Ha! So like, I got this. It’s not for lack of options. I’m not sure I can handle more options.

So. There’s a new 11 week-old, 11 pound wild animal living in my house, with tiny razor sharp teeth and a very small bladder, and it’s kind of the best. It’s true that puppies are a lot of work with a lot of needs, but I gotta say—while I’d absolutely do the adult dog adoption and the senior dog adoptions again—it feels like a real privilege to get to raise this guy from 10 weeks. I haven’t had a puppy since middle school! The house is absolutely littered with toys, I’m churning out boiled chicken and rice like it’s my job, and have never spent so much time monitoring the frequency and viscosity of poop in my life. And, as I type this, I have a couple of dogs—my dogs—sleeping soundly on both sides of me, occasionally letting out a little snore or dream-twitch to remind me it’s real.

Maybe the timing for that was just right, after all.

If you’re interested in adopting one of the puppy’s litter mates, I think they’re all still available! Go fill out an application at Hollywood Dog Rescue, located in Pine Bush, NY! Liz was a pleasure to work with. 

Life
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Giveaway! Before and After! Hygge & West Home!!

So something cool happened. Gather ’round.

Several years ago now, when I still lived in Brooklyn, I got to do a really fun job for a really cool client—multi-talented woman of the stage, screen, and audio recording, Ana Gasteyer! You might remember her glamfabulous master bathroom makeover I posted about with the incredible metallic pineapple wallpaper, and thennnnnnnnn…we never spoke of it again?

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

That’s my fault. Blogger fail. In reality I was lucky enough to work with Ana on a few major spaces in her home, but I never circled back to it on the blog. Evidently I didn’t even really shoot the spaces when I was done, unless those photos are hiding in a file somewhere deep in my hard drive, which is effectively the same thing. So stupid! Ana and I are still in touch—she’s good people!—but I’m rarely in Brooklyn, and asking to come photograph someone’s house like 5 years after the fact feels…I don’t know, not how it’s done. There’s an illusion of professionalism I have to maintain here, people!

Cut to: earlier this year. I received a book in the mail I’d been looking forward to: Hygge & West’s first book, Hygge & West Home: Design for a Cozy Life! I swear these things are related. Hygge & West has been my favorite wallpaper company for years (in fact…I don’t think I’ve ever used wallpaper on a project from anywhere else? nothing comes to mind? that’s kinda crazy.), and here they went and put together this beautiful book that brilliantly combines gorgeous interiors with profiles of the people who inhabit them and the things big and small that lend uniqueness and personality and coziness to these homes. The book is truly beautiful and such an achievement—I’m so proud to kinda-sorta know the amazing women who have built this company over the past decade, Aimee and Christiana. I want to be like them when I grow up.

ANYWAY. I’m looking through this book and all of a sudden—that’s Ana’s house!! I did that!! And then I started reading and I’m mentioned by name and everything, and…well. Surreal! My work, photographed by a professional and published in this glorious book! So, yes. I am taking a moment to brag because that was really fucking cool and a first for me. It looks very much as it did the day I left, which warms my heart.

Ana was such a great client—YES she’s a successful actress and overall class act, but she totally spoke my language of thriftiness, vintage, IKEA (I knew when she started spitting product names like a true aficionado that we’d get along), antique rugs, weird art…basically all the things I like. She and her family are all genuinely kind, smart, wonderful people, who were exceedingly gracious with this little 23 year old blogger guy who didn’t totally know what he was doing, flitting around their house rearranging all the things. With two young kids (not so young anymore!), she wasn’t looking to spend crazy money on fussy, fancy stuff and didn’t want a space that felt overdone—she wanted clean and practical and functional and calm. A place for everything, including so many cool and unique treasures accumulated over she and her husband Charlie’s rich and interesting lives thus far. I’m kind of freaked out by the interior decorate-y concept of buying decor items to fill out a shelf vignette or whatever that don’t actually mean a thing to the client, except that they paid for them, but Ana had so much great stuff to work with. So it was really a matter of trying to honor her existing things by pulling it all together in a way that felt cohesive and fun and stylish and livable.

Same area of the living room, before and after style! The building is an old factory/warehouse kinda deal, converted into living units, which is pretty common in Brooklyn. A lot of the work was adding little things to update and upgrade from the builder-basic finishes, and trying to make kinda weird areas and soffits and stuff like this look special and intentional rather than awkward. We removed track lighting in favor of more impactful pendants (this one from Flos was so so pretty), and added those little Alabax fixtures from Schoolhouse Electric to the soffit which evidently housed a duct, the vent for which I believe was photoshopped out of the “after” image—ha!

We papered the wall in Hygge & West’s Andanza and that shimmery copper backdrop was just…GAH! Gorgeous, gorgeous. The sofa was IKEA and I built a realllllllly long and narrow plant table for behind it (Ana loves a house plant, especially geraniums!). The rug was from Rugs USA (holy shit, it’s so cheap right now), the coffee table was from Organic Modernism (god I love that table), and the lounge chair was our big ticket item from Anthropologie. The guitar hook is from OneFortyThree! On either side of the piano we did two little “fauxdenzas,” the IKEA hack gift that just keeps on giving that Anna from Door Sixteen gave to the world many moons ago. I think I installed…5 different fauxdenzas in Ana’s place? Just so damn practical!

Don’t worry—we just moved that pretty antique china cabinet to a better wall! Aside from the beautiful vintage credenza, there isn’t a single thing in this photo that I purchased. I think Ana grew up with that incredible mirror, and the lamp (we called it the jellyfish lamp) was a gift from a cast mate, if memory serves. I spent the entire job terrified I’d break it somehow—that’s a helluva lot of crystal to be responsible for.

Not to get all weird and dark on you, but seeing these rooms presented in this way was really the first time I ever gave myself credit for doing a good job here. I think that happens a lot with creative work—by the time a project is nearing completion, you’ve poured a lot of time and emotional and physical energy into it, and you lose objectivity. Combine that with major insecurity (oh hiiiiiii) and it’s really hard to gauge whether something is good or not because to you it’s become a collection of projects that may not have turned out as perfectly as expected, or purchases that pushed you over budget, or back-and-forths with the client where you wish you had pushed harder for some option you liked better, or some flaw you hope nobody else notices, and so on. And yet: DAMNIT, DANIEL. It’s in a fucking book. A beautiful book. It looks great. And most importantly, it fits the people it was designed for, who have loved and lived and partied and chilled and, now, grown up in it. In what universe is that not a success? So this book, to me, feels like a real gift—a good reminder to not do that stupid thing anymore. It’s OK to want to do better and celebrate where you’re at. We’re often doing better than we think we are.

SO. I asked Christiana and Aimee if I could extend that gift to you, too, in the form of a good old fashioned Manhattan Nest giveaway, and they did us one better! Because it’s almost Christmas and we should have a little fun!

Up for grabs is not only a copy of Hygge & West Home: Design for a Cozy Life, where you can see the rest of Ana’s house as well as a ton of other spectacular homes, but also…TWO rolls of one of their newest papers, Piedmont! Any color! That’s 60 feet of wallpaper THAT IS SO CUTE AND PRETTY I JUST DIE. And knowing what I know of Hygge & West’s paper, it’s roughly 14,000 times more beautiful, somehow, in real life.

TO ENTER: Let’s run this old school. Leave a comment telling us where you’d use the wallpaper and/or who you’d give the gift of Hygge & West Home: Design for a Cozy Life to—which can totally be yourself! No judgment.

UPDATE: This giveaway is now closed! Thank you, everyone! The winner will be notified by email! :). A winner will be selected at random and notified via email! Please note that international entries are welcome and Hygge & West will pay the shipping, however the winner may be responsible for international duties & taxes.

Good luck!

I was generously supplied a copy of Hygge & West Home: Design for a Cozy Life. All opinions and nonsense are my own. Photos from the book used in this post are by James Carriére and used with permission from the authors. 

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.

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