How to Skim Coat Walls with the Best of Them.

Here’s how to skim coat walls with the best of them: hire the best of them? OMG YOU GUYS I FIGURED IT OUT! Are you inspired yet?

I’m the worst.

But here’s the deal: renovating a house involved a LOT of different technical skills, and you don’t have to walk into it with any of them, really. I didn’t! And while I think it’s good to dip your toe into all sorts of things to learn how they work and whether you actually like them, after you’ve done that I think it’s OK to be honest about what you find enjoyable/gratifying and cut yourself some slack on what you don’t. For me, I’ve found that I really enjoy some woodworking/carpentry times, basic electrical, tedious crazy tasks that wouldn’t really make financial sense to hire out (removing and planing down all the original clapboard on my house, for instance!), and plenty of other things like painting and restoring windows that’s neither fun nor un-fun but manageable and fine and kind of satisfying. And then there are other things that I have very little interest in, like plumbing and, you guessed it, skim coating. I love a restored plaster wall. I don’t want to restore all my plaster walls single-handedly. I like parts of it (stripping down the plaster, installing plaster washers), but the actual skim-coating part I’m thrilled to hand over to a pro when I can. I can do it. I don’t want to do it. So for the den-ovation (thanks to Jaime for that delightful word combo that I will shamelessly co-opt), I hired my main man Edwin to take on the bulk of it. Lucky for you this freed up my hands to take some process pics which we will now review. Let’s learn from the best in the hopes that we might someday be the best? Or just be OK with not being the best. Up to you.

THIS GUY. I love him with all my heart. He’s straight, just to clear anything up there. Edwin is my next door neighbor who I hired three years ago to install/mud/tape drywall on my first floor ceilings, and we’ve done a ton of stuff together since. It’s the most significant bromantic relationship of my life. I learn a lot from him and, believe it or not, he learns a lot from me. Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but when Edwin and I work together it kind of is. Except that time I dropped a level on his head. Sorry Papi!

Also, what a stud. He likes to inform me multiple times a day that “in my country, they call me El Pollo.” Of course they do.

SO. Let’s talk skim-coating. I should preface all of this by saying that we’re talking specifically about skim-coating with joint compound, which is a bit more DIY-friendly for someone who’s not used to doing it, but IDEALLY we’d be talking about a plaster veneer. Plaster veneer falls into two camps from what I understand: hydrated lime and gypsum-based. Gypsum based plaster veneers are generally available at big boxes and the like, and are generally what people are talking about when they talk about plaster veneer in the United States. It sets VERY fast, dries VERY hard, and is super beautiful (especially when tinted and left unpainted!), but traditional plasterers typically apprentice literally for YEARS before they’re allowed to start “putting up” plaster on their own. It takes a lot of skill just to get the plaster from hawk to trowel to wall, and a lot of built-up muscle memory to get the application just right.

Hydrated lime plasters are WAY cool, and what I’d like to try next. It’s one of the oldest building materials known to man and remains one of the healthiest to live and work with. It has the ability to handle big swings in humidity and temperature, which is good in old houses that undergo these swings due to a lack of central air and modern ventilation and stuff. Lime plaster is essentially extremely finely ground limestone that’s fired at a temperature of about 1500 degrees to remove any impurities, and then some other stuff is done to it that I don’t pretend to understand, and then it arrives to you pre-mixed in a 5-gallon bucket. Whereas gypsum-based products have a shelf life because the wet varieties dry out and the powdered varieties take on moisture from the air and harden, hydrated lime is actually aged after packaging to achieve superior results. Once the hydrated lime is applied to interior surfaces, it takes CO2 from the air to “cure”—essentially completing the lime cycle and returning to a stone-like state on your walls! How cool is that? Application technique dictates whether your walls are kinda rough and uneven or perfectly smooth and shiny, which is just personal preference. Instead of sanding like with joint compound, you keep working the plaster as it’s curing to smooth out it out to your heart’s content. Cure/working time is similar to the dry time with all purpose joint compound, meaning it’s typically a three-coat process spread out over three separate days, and like gypsum plaster veneer it can be left painted or unpainted depending on taste. Also it dries to a PH of 12, making it naturally mold and mildew proof. This is why you can wet the shit out of an old plaster wall to remove wallpaper and stuff, and the wall is totally fine.

So those are some things I know—huge thank you to the folks at Master of Plaster for teaching me. They sell gorgeous restoration plasters which can be colored to your preference, and I’m so excited to try it out someday soon.

We didn’t do that though. I have zero doubt that Edwin has the skills to pick up plastering quickly from all his years of joint compound work, so we’re gonna learn it together. Then he can start charging an arm and a leg to do real plaster restoration work, so it’s a win-win! As long as he doesn’t try to hit me with those new rates, haha.

SO. I digress. We are talking about joint compound, the inferior but totally fine/normal way to do this.

Once the plaster is stripped down, plaster buttons installed, and cracks scraped out, the next step is applying fiberglass mesh to the cracks. You CAN do the window screening we discussed in the last post over the entire wall (particularly if there’s significant cracking), but mostly the walls in this room were in good shape so we used standard mesh tape just where it was needed.

I do NOT like paper tape. I feel like it doesn’t hold up, particularly on plaster. I don’t trust it.

We always end up using some combo of joint compounds for skim-coating, which is something you mainly just need to get a feel for. The All Purpose pre-mixed joint compound 5-gal bucket is fine, but the dry time is quite long (sometimes more than 24 hours, depending on temperature and humidity levels), and I don’t think it dries to the same hardness as some of the powdered alternatives. When I’m doing it myself, I tend to go for Easy Sand with a 90 minute set time, which for me is enough working time (now, not when I first tried this!), dries harder, and—as the name implies—does sand easily. Because Edwin has better technique than I do, for this we primarily used Durabondalso a joint compound but dries really hard, making it probably a poor choice if you rely on a lot of sanding like I do when doing this myself.

It takes some practice to get a sense of the right powder-to-water ratio, but you can always add a little more water after mixing. We tend to mix maybe a third of the bag at once. You’re going for a thick peanut butter type texture.

There aren’t really right and wrong ways to get it up onto the wall. I’m now OK with a hawk and trowel, but I started with a mudding pan that felt more manageable. You’ll notice that Edwin has a rounded trowel in his right hand (typically used more for plaster than joint compound) and a straight 8 or 10 inch taping knife in the other. He was excited to try the rounded trowel but he’s used to the taping knives. The benefit of the trowel is that the rounded edges make it easier to not leave lines, but personally I find the trowel difficult to get the hang of. Also of note—those dark patches are fiberglass window screening that we used over the upper section of wall where the plaster was more iffy.

Essentially you want to load up your trowel or knife, start at the top and smooth it all down (or bottom up, or side to side—whatever the hell makes you happy)—you’re looking for about 1/8″ in coverage or a bit less. Thin! But also thick enough! The key is to apply the right amount of sturdy, even pressure to the knife or trowel to get a smooth, solid skim rather than one with bubbles and other weirdness.

I find this difficult. The Magic Trowel makes this less difficult, but you don’t want to really rely on it—you still have to get a FAIRLY smooth and even coverage with the knife/trowel, because the Magic Trowel is really good for smoothing and filling in tracks left by the knife or air bubbles, that kind of thing, but not for actually getting joint compound up onto the wall.

Obviously, the wall on the left has a coat of compound on it, wall on the right does not. There are knives for finishing both inside and outside wall corners, but Edwin prefers to run a straight taping knife along one side of the corner, wait for that side to dry, and then proceed with the adjoining wall and its side of the corner. Trying to do both at once with this method will lead to some very messy corners.

See how there’s some yellow peeking through the grey joint compound to the left of the door? That’s kinda what you’re going for with a first coat in terms of thickness. I won’t pretend it’s easy.

After the first coat is up and fully dried, go around with your taping knife or spackle knife and knock off any high spots or weird globs. You don’t need to sand at this stage but you do need to get your surface even for the next coat.

Ugh, melt my heart!! Look at him go. This is the second coat going up. The second coat is when things really start feeling covered, much like with paint.

We all know by now that I am kind of a crazy person (if you’re new here, consider this your warning), so even though it’s totally abnormal, I think skim-coating drywall is something worth considering if you’re in an old house and trying to match up plaster surfaces to drywall ones. It’s NOT about adding weird texture or giving the walls some faux-rustic treatment, just about NOT getting those perrrrrrfectllyyyy flat walls that drywall is really designed for. I think this will also lessen the likelihood of the drywall cracking along the seams or screw heads popping over time, which I see with most drywall jobs after a few years. If you can tell where the joints are, it’s not going to look like a plaster wall.

Will anyone EVER notice this? No. It’s a normal wall that looks like a normal wall. That’s the point. But I will know it was treated the same way as its plaster counterparts in the same room, and I will appreciate it.

Same for the ceiling. You’ll notice for both that we mudded and taped as usual for the first coat, and then proceeded to a full skim for the second. It made my heart go all pitter-patter. Skim-coating a ceiling is my personal version of hell, but Edwin was undaunted. Told ya. He’s good at these things so they don’t seem like a big deal at all. Just another surface.

Look at that! The man’s an artist! I do NOT achieve these results pre-sanding. Or even post-sanding. That is why it’s worth it to me to hire out. It’s faster and easier but it’s also BETTER long-term than what I can do. My work is sufficient. His work is excellent. It’s not like this is the kind of thing you ever want to redo.

I’ve increased the contrast on this picture a bunch so you can see that up close, it’s not perfect. Not yet! This is after the second coat, and there are some track lines from the trowels and knives and unevenness. As with the first coat, you want to knock down any high spots and lumps after drying, and depending on how things are looking you might want to do some sanding. With Edwin we can mostly skip the sanding and just save it for the end. I have to sand when I’m going it alone.

Your final finish coat is primarily to fill in any of that weirdness, and Edwin likes to mix a soupy batch (think pancake batter!) and paint it onto the wall with a roller. It’s nice to have two people at this stage—one to mix and roll and the other to smooth.

Once it’s rolled, you work quickly to smooth it down—taking most of it off the wall as you go. Just enough to fill in pesky spots.

I might need to do this final coat a few times over as I continue to spot imperfections, but a more skilled skim coater can do it in one shot.

After that’s all totally dry, you can move on to the sanding! Confession time: right after I bought this house and was operating under the delusion that I’d be doing all the skim coating work myself, I bought myself this super expensive drywall sander that primarily just takes up room in my basement. It’s designed to hook into a running ShopVac to suck most of the dust, but honestly I find it difficult to control and I don’t like using it myself. Edwin is a big fan, though, and I often let him borrow it for jobs he’s doing. When sanding, even on a bright day, it’s good to shine a work light at an angle on the wall you’re working on—it just helps you see whatever needs to be sanded down.

This doesn’t get you entirely out of hand-sanding, though—you need to go back in with a sanding block around moldings and in corners and areas that are missed by first pass. After a first coat of paint, these seams where the wall meets molding get caulked.

The final step for me is typically knocking down the globs that like to accumulate on top of door casings and baseboards. You can’t see the top of the door casings if you’re just in the room, but I like knowing that these spots didn’t just get painted over because someone (who is me) was lazy.

So there it is, skim coating with Edwin! At this point, the room is pretty much ready to paint! Now I can get in there and tackle the moldings, CLEAN, and get some paint on these walls!

Den Renovation: Plaster Repair, Insulation, Drywall!

I think people assume I like demo, but I honestly kind of hate demo. Demo in an old house renovation, specifically. Partially because it’s often tinged with some sadness and guilt if it means disturbing or destroying original parts of the house (like plaster walls and ceilings that are beyond the point of saving, for instance). Partially because it’s hugely messy in a way that can never truly be contained to the space you’re working in. Partially because it typically involves hauling very heavy bags of waste and debris out of the house and then to the dump, and then paying money to get it out of my life…it’s not fun sledgehammer times like it looks on TV.

You know what I kind of secretly love, though? That part after the major demo work is done, when you get the chance to really prep everything for the next steps. It’s so satisfying? I like tedium. So after the ceiling in the soon-to-be upstairs den space was demolished and disposed of, I got to work* on what I really like, which is pulling all those little tiny lath nails, scraping off any stubborn bits of plaster, and ShopVac-ing what was left of the old cellulose insulation off the joists. CLEAN SLATE! It’s stuff like this that makes me immediately feel like I’m ready to go, and not just looking at a big mess I made.

*after several months of semi-successfully ignoring the situation completely

With the joists all cleaned up fancy, it was time to address the walls!

I feel I deserve the smallest amount of credit possible for mostly never really touching these walls until it was really time to deal with them. The entire second floor of my house is like this—the original wallpaper is covered in tons of layers of paint, possibly other wallpaper, masking tape and and caulk and joint compound in some places…and it all gets stripped off. This is not always necessary, but in my case the original wallpaper adhesive is barely holding on so it seems unwise/lazy to try to skim coat over it anyway. It’s just a matter of chip-chip-chipping away with a regular old putty knife and it all scrapes off fairly easily. I figure anything that’s really stuck can stay. The goal is just to create a solid, stable surface for the skim-coat to adhere to.

Wouldn’t it be great if I had the discipline to lay down some plastic sheeting first? When I’m a grown-up, I’m gonna prep like a champ. Until then I’ll just be…living my authentic truth. Or something.

Anyway, it’s a sort of messy process. What isn’t.

So fresh and so clean! Ha. But it is sort of satisfying right, if you ignore the mess on the floor?

Then, plaster washers! Or “plaster buttons,” depending on your mood. These things are amazing, and way more effective than you’d think from looking at them. Essentially it’s a small perforated stainless steel washer—a bit bigger than a quarter—with a hole in the center for a drywall screw. Often over time, the plaster “keys”—formed by the first layer of plaster squeezing through the lath and hardening on the backside, which holds the plaster securely to the lath—will have weakened or failed (or the lath itself has pulled away from the studs a bit), resulting in plaster walls that have some give when you push on them. This is not a good reason to demo the walls, I promise! Plaster washers are the answer! That small maybe 1/8″ gap between the wall and the door casing in the image above is the result of the plaster buttons pulling the whole wall back toward the studs, and now it doesn’t have any give at all.

Some people just use plaster washers around cracks or where it seems necessary, but my attitude about plaster washers is that more is more. Nothing wrong with some added security even for areas that appear to be in good shape.

Luckily, plaster washers are inexpensive and easy to install. If you’re working alone, I recommend inserting the screws on a bunch of washers first to get them prepped for yourself, but if you have a partner it’s nice to have one person install and one person prep each washer. It goes pretty fast.

Plaster washers are most effective if you’re hitting studs (or joists, for a ceiling), but stud-finders are pretty worthless with plaster walls. My wall framing tends to be close to the modern standard of 16″ on center, but it can be pretty irregular and you can’t count on it. That’s why god invented test-drilling! With a small bit (this is 1/8″), drill small holes every inch or so along the wall, and eventually you’ll hit a stud. Mark your location, and then measure out about 16″ and drill around there until you find the next one. When you have your studs marked, use a long level and a pencil to draw vertical lines along the length of each stud.

Test-drilling seems intimidating (how do I know if I’ve really hit a stud if I can’t see it?), but you get a feel for it very quickly. Become one with the drill. Become one with your walls. Use the force. I don’t know. Stop complaining.

Boom, look at all that secure plaster! I just eyeball the spacing but go for one about every foot on the verticals. This means that you need a LOT of washers—they come in packs of 25 but this room took about 250 of them. I know that sounds excessive but…that’s just the kind of guy I am? By the way, these are often hard to find in the hardware store and employees usually don’t know what they are, so ordering online isn’t a bad idea.

Some areas with cracks might need some special attention. Again, feel it out. Many of the cracks in this room appear to have been filled a long time ago with straight up concrete, so I scraped out what was loose or lumpy and left what remained. In general with plaster cracks, you want to scrape out the crack, cover it in fiberglass mesh tape or screening, and then proceed with patching with joint compound. People like to skip the first two steps and then wonder why their plaster cracks again in a year. Don’t do it to yourself.

I like to keep joint compound work contained to one lively stage of work, so even though the walls are now prepped we still gotta put in a ceiling! I added some metal brackets where the joists meet the top plate from that section of Lowe’s where joist hangers and stuff live, just for a little added structural strength. There are joist hangers specifically for this application, but none them fit the thickness of my joists so I improvised. Can’t hurt.

Then, insulation! I used fiberglass batt for this. I think the Olivebridge project forever scarred me against using fiberglass insulation because by the time I dug into those walls, the mice had turned most of it into nests and that shit is nasty (and doesn’t provide insulation value at that point). But assuming you don’t have a horrendous pest problem that persists for years, I guess fiberglass is fine. It’s whatever. Insulation is rated by R-value (higher = better, basically), but you also want to pay attention to the depth of the wall/ceiling where you’re installing. Even though a really thick fiberglass batt can be squeezed in to fit in a shallower wall cavity, this actually reduces the R-value and the insulation itself costs more. These joists are about the size of a modern 2×6, so I used this R-21 that’s ideal for 2×6 walls.

Now, if you’re installing a significant amount of insulation or especially if you’re doing it alone and on a ceiling, get yourself an electric—or, better yet, pneumatic—staple gun! I bought this little pneumatic guy for $50 and it was a total lifesaver, and I’ll get plenty of use out of it for all kinds of stuff. I should have bought one years ago!

FINALLY, DRYWALL!!! YAYYYY!!!! Somehow I transported 12′ sheets of drywall home by myself (we needed 10-footers to span the width of the room, but Lowe’s didn’t have them), and then Edwin and I tag-teamed putting them up. I’ve never installed a drywall ceiling before, but honestly with two people (each armed with their own ladder, drill, and supply of drywall screws), it wasn’t that bad at all. We had the whole thing put up in under an hour. We used 1/2″ drywall primarily because I already had a sheet or two and that saved a little cost/thinned the hoard, but 5/8″ would also be good/fine/maybe better.

You may note that when I had sheetrock ceilings installed three years ago, I was FREAKED OUT by the prospect of my ceilings not being perfectly level and flat, so Edwin and Edgar sistered new, flat 2×4 studs along each joist and then installed the drywall onto those to compensate for any wonkiness in the original joists. At the time I remember being very concerned that the ceiling would appear super wavy, like it would follow the high and low spots of each joist and look a total mess. Here, I didn’t do that. And the ceiling is, in fact, NOT quite level and perfect, but you definitely can’t see the impression of every joist or anything like that. Drywall has some flex but is a very rigid material, so any minor slants and dips happen so gradually over the span that they aren’t at all noticeable—and I think make the ceiling look more like a plaster ceiling and less like a perfectly new drywall one. #NoRegrets but I do feel like we could have skipped the sistering on the first floor and been just as happy if not more so. Live and learn.

Considering it wasn’t that long ago that looking up in this room meant seeing THIS, drywall made a huge and dramatic difference. All of a sudden the room was so bright! And so room-like! Fancy that!

I know, it’s all very exciting. Contain yourself!

Next, I did the thing I pledged I’d do years ago, then didn’t do for the bedroom, then really wish I had done for the bedroom: I hired Edwin to do the skim-coating. Edwin has been doing drywall and skim-coating work for years and years and is SO good at it, and it’s really the one part of renovating a room that I truly loathe, am not good at anyway, and takes me forever. A skilled skim-coater can knock out a room like this in a couple of days, achieve pretty perfect results, and allow you to move on with your life and do stuff you find more stimulating.

I did not do the thing that I also pledged I’d do, which is to use real lime-based plaster rather than joint compound. I talked to Edwin about it and we’re going to do that next time (hopefully from Master of Plaster—an amazing company down in South Carolina who make the real deal!)—he’s so good with a hawk and a trowel that I know he’ll pick it up quickly even though he’s never used it. But here, momentum led us to going with the devil we know that could be picked up from the hardware store a mile away. NEXT TIME, though. Kitchen, I’m looking at you.

The first order of business was essentially rebuilding the top of all the walls, where the multiple layers of ceiling demo had left a lot of crumbly bits and big gaps. My instinct with repairs like this would have been to cut out more of the plaster to create some clean level lines, patch with sheetrock, and then skim-coat, but Edwin just went right to filling these spots with copious amounts of joint compound. We used Durabond for this, which is a powdered joint compound that dries much harder than the pre-mixed All Purpose joint compound or EasySand alternatives. It’s also much more difficult to sand, so this is part of why having someone with skill do it is a huge asset.

I put up fiberglass mesh tape over the drywall seams while Edwin filled major gaps, and then we put up fiberglass mesh over about the top foot of all the walls, which effectively acts as a really wide mesh tape.

For this, we used a tip I picked up from Alex at Old Town Home years ago (along with the plaster washers—thank you, Alex!) and used window screening! It’s cheap, it’s fiberglass mesh, and it comes in rolls of various sizes that you can easily cut to whatever size you need. There’s a product in the drywall section for big applications like this, but it’s WAY more expensive and the window screening seems just as good. The only challenge is that the window screening doesn’t have an adhesive on the back like mesh tape does, so it’s a little tricky to get it into place and embed it in the joint compound. Still pretty easy, though.

With the top of all the walls repaired and the first coat of mud on the ceiling seams and screws, I got to work on the newly-rebuilt exterior wall! With sheetrock, you want to start from the bottom of the wall so you can rest subsequent sheets on the ones below while you install.

YES this looks insane but I used the same strategy that I used in the bedroom, which I’m pretty happy with: two layers of 1/2″ sheetrock, one on top of the other. A plaster wall including the lath is about an inch thick, so this allows the new drywall work to meet the original plaster in the corners and stuff, meaning your baseboards fall where they should to meet the existing baseboards on the adjacent walls. It also helps with the “hollowness” feeling of a single layer of drywall, adds a bit more structural strength to the wall, and has some minor insulation value. The first layer is also a nice way to use up all those little drywall scraps! This is a task for me, because I like being scrappy and using what I’ve got even when it looks insane and takes a while. Like a big puzzle!

The second layer gets much bigger sheets of drywall, primarily to lessen the likelihood of cracks developing along the seams over time. Then it’s just a matter of taping and mudding as normal, paying special attention to the corners where drywall and plaster meet.

CAN YOU SEE IT NOW? It’s almost a room! But not yet! Now the whole thing—plaster and drywall both!—will get skim-coated and sanded smooth, baseboard and window moldings have to go in, and then it’s on to caulking and painting and hanging up a proper light and putting in furniture and fretting about art placement and lounging forever on that massive sofa. Hooray!

Introducing: The Den!

I’ve been working on another room! In my house! Capturing some of the momentum from finishing the renovation work on my bedroom (well, mostly), I started working on one of the other most torn-apart rooms in the house a couple months ago, and have just been chipping away at it when I have time.

(No, I haven’t really started the kitchen renovation. No, I haven’t finished Bluestone Cottage. It’s a long story. We’ll get to it. But I can only do so many things at once, and after a long time of barely doing anything to the interior of my house except further destroy it while I was just a tad busy with some other projects like building an entire house in under a year, I needed to get a few things back in order with my own space to maintain a semblance of sanity. These things happen.)

This is the room, which we’ve rarely discussed here because it’s never really been a space I used! I think maybe the last time we talked about it was when I bought the house? At the time I called it the “middle bedroom” which is how I’ve continued to refer to it until now.

One sort of funny thing (maybe that’s not quite the right word) about renovating this house has been that even though it’s a pretty big house, it’s never felt all that much bigger than, say, my Brooklyn apartment. Much of the house is still unrenovated and not in use at all, aside from maybe storing stuff: the big living room, the downstairs bathroom, now the kitchen, the room above the kitchen, and this space. Some spaces haven’t been renovated but are chugging along in spite of that, performing their very basic and necessary functions. Until very recently that included the bedroom but also the only bathroom (it’s so bad, omg), the nursery, all closets, the hallways and stairs. And then there are the spaces that I have renovated, which can be difficult to maintain while other areas get renovated, such as the smaller living room, the dining room (which also currently houses the kitchen, haha), the laundry room, the little upstairs office, and now (thank goodness!) my bedroom!

A lot of the more recent and money-draining work on the house has been dedicated to exterior projects, which makes a huge difference in the appearance of the house from the outside and affects the interior—especially when we’re talking about adding windows or demolishing additions—but doesn’t tend to immediately improve the inside of the house. In fact, in the case of this room, it turned it from unrenovated-but-serviceable to…ruins.

So anyway. I guess what I’m really saying is three things.

The first is that my life is a mess.

The second is that while recovering from the fun and exciting financial strain of big exterior projects (and trying to save for upcoming things like the kitchen!), getting some simple rooms completed that can be finished on a “paint and joint compound” budget has been a good strategy for me. Even if that means renovating out of order in terms of need—in case you were wondering why this is coming before the kitchen. Kitchens cost a lot of money but rooms like this don’t.

And the third thing is that I’m almost at the four year mark of owning this house, and just starting to feel like I can…spread out a bit. Treating the house more or less like a much smaller apartment has led to things feeling kind of compacted and condensed—like using the bedroom as a place to sleep but also often as a place to watch TV, work, and eat. Increasingly there are separate spaces for doing different stuff, which just feels CRAZY. I used to have this recurring dream when I lived in New York, where I’d open a previously-unnoticed door in my apartment and find a whole other space behind it that I had no idea existed. It’s kind of like that, but in reality!

To orient ourselves a bit, the room we’re discussing is #4 on the floor plan above, highlighted in pink. It’s a decently sized room (about 10’x14′), but it’s kind of tricky—you have to walk through it to get to both the little office (#3) and the room above the kitchen (#5). I thought for a long time that I’d make this room into a guest bedroom, but that’s also the plan for the room above the kitchen, and it’s pretty awkward to have to walk through a bedroom to get to another bedroom. A bed does fit in this room, but doesn’t leave much space to maneuver around it (which you have to do to get to the other two rooms off of it, of course), so I realized that a guest bedroom in here might be a poor use of space.

Then it occurred to me: cozy den, please. One of my friends and fellow old-house-dwellers has a room on the second floor of his house that I like to refer to as the opium den. While the living room on the first floor is well-used but more formal, this secondary den space is where the TV lives, a big comfy sofa, a big upholstered ottoman, walls painted almost-black and covered in art and curiosities…it’s inevitably where the party ends up at the end of the night (not coincidentally, it’s also the room in the house where you’re allowed to smoke pot), and just a super cozy space to curl up, watch a movie, and eat chinese food.

Gimme dat.

SO. Like every other space, this one has marched through some changes as the rest of the house has gotten some updating around it. The room-by-room strategy to renovating is a myth because of this kind of thing. First off was addressing this radiator, which had this situation going on when I bought the house. That vertical pipe was a remnant of an older heating system and could be removed, and the radiator supply and return pipes that once ran up the corner of the dining room were removed and buried in the wall. I like to re-route radiator lines through walls and ceilings where possible—this house was built before radiator heating (or indoor plumbing, for that matter), so even though the radiators themselves aren’t going anywhere, it’s nice not to not see the pipes all over the place.

While the plumbers worked on re-running the lines, I patched in the floor! This is the only radiator in the house installed this way—over a painted panel instead of the flooring running below it, and I kind of wanted to center it on the wall (now I kind of wish I hadn’t), so anyway. The plumbers were sort of amazed to find that the whole subfloor had been cut out, too! And that the whole thing hadn’t ever come crashing through the dining room ceiling, since—newsflash—radiators are reallllllly heavy.

Anyway—I installed ledger boards on the joists below, patched in a new piece of subfloor, and then feathered in floorboards over that. I used boards from the downstairs bathroom, which look totally different but are the same size and species of wood (douglas fir), and should look the same once the floors are eventually refinished. Someday. I didn’t worry about the two boards closest to the wall being feathered because the radiator sits completely over the seam, and I was rushing to get done before the plumbers had to put the radiator back!

The room also got some electrical upgrades as parts of other projects, and then it sat for a couple of years. More or less untouched. Sad times.

Then toward the end of last summer, some big things happened. Like this bay window going away.

I know. I know. At first glance, you’re like—holy smokes, that’s awesome! What a fun feature of this room!

I also had that thought. Slowly, over time, that thought was replaced by other thoughts—not the least of which being that the whole thing was constructed on top of the collapsing solarium, and that was probably bad should the solarium ever decide to give way. Also it wasn’t original to the house. Also it was in very poor condition—missing the windows on each side, a terrible drywall job to cover up water damage from the leaking roof above it, some creative use of 1x lumber, noticeable settling…this was all done before I bought the house, and none of it was good. It also just felt…strange. I think because it wasn’t original to the house, this room isn’t really big enough to handle it. It felt proportionally totally off. And looked like a tumor on the exterior.

BYE.

So we cut it off. Kind of. It was slightly more complex than that. You can read about it here.

Then we framed in the new window. I tried to do as much of the exterior work from inside the house as possible so that I could minimize the amount of time that anything would be exposed to the elements or looking a damn mess for the neighborhood.

But look! I like this view because—really—it’s how the house is supposed to be. The way this new window lines up perfectly with the adjacent one in the little office feels emblematic of the organized way that a neoclassical house is designed and constructed. It looks right from the outside and feels right on the inside.

Once that wall was taken care of (structurally at least—clearly there is still work to be done!), we got a little demo-happy and ripped down the ceiling. I hate demo’ing plaster because it’s a horrendous mess but also because plaster and lath walls are better than new material options in a number of ways, and once it’s gone it’s gone. Unfortunately this ceiling had furring strips nailed into it and acoustic tiles installed onto those (likely installed in the 60s, when the original ceiling was probably showing signs of failure), and pulling down the furring strips tends to take a ton of plaster with them, at least in my experience. Of course, there’s blown-in cellulose insulation between the second floor ceilings and the attic floors, which is only really a bad thing when you have to rip out a ceiling and you don’t want all of it to come down with the ceiling. So the solution Edwin and I came up with was to take up the attic floorboards over this room, shovel out as much of the cellulose as we could into big contractor bags (BOY WAS THAT FUN), spray it all down with a garden sprayer to contain some of the dust, and then demo the ceiling as normal from below.

The worst.

Also, it was kind of nuts to be able to see the underside of my roof at this phase.

After some major clean-up, we put down new 3/4″ plywood subfloor in this section of the attic. The original boards are all varying widths and some cracked or splintered during removal, so re-laying the original floor is a project for another time. Also because I’m crazy I can’t guarantee this will be the last time I have to remove sections of the attic floor, and I’d rather be messing up new plywood than precious 150 year old pine planks.

This was all happening during the side-of-house restoration project, so the name of the game was doing just enough in here to make things OK, but all real energy and funds went toward getting the exterior buttoned up before winter hit. And that left…

This! Which I know looks like a sad, sad state of affairs but really represents a huge amount of progress! Framing is done, new attic subfloor is in, new electrical is run, and the reconstructed exterior wall is insulated (ceiling insulation comes next!)—so now the fun work begins! This room has a little bit of everything: carpentry around the new window and patching in the baseboard, new drywall work, plaster repair and skim-coating on the remaining three walls, and of course painting and furnishing and all that child’s play.

So here’s an idea of what I’m thinking! That’s the wall color in the upper left hand corner, followed by the trim and door color. I think I’m even going to try to paint the ceiling the wall color too and see how that goes! I’ve tried a couple times in the past—unsuccessfully—to paint a ceiling super dark and it’s never looked good, but I think this room will turn that streak around. Then we have another new medallion and another black radiator. The light is just something I dragged off the internet and then turned pink in Photoshop, but I do have a vintage light fixture with pink glass shades that I’m so excited to use! The sofa is also a Photoshopped version of this sofa from Roger and Chris, which is just sort of similar to the sofa I’m getting from…the Brinson’s! I’ve recently become friends with fellow bloggers and upstate NY dwellers Susan and Will, and they’re getting rid of their big boxy super-stuffed leather gigantic mass of a sofa, and something tells me that Mekko is never going to leave it. Then my little bright blue Eames rocker (which hasn’t been used since I moved from Brooklyn! I missed it!) and a side table I’ve hoarded for a few years from JC Penney, which was part of the Terence Conran collection and I bought when it went on sale, even though I didn’t know what I’d do with it! Sometimes you just gotta! Then there’s the Rise Floor Lamp and Balla Sheepskin from Article (this post isn’t sponsored, but they did provide those two products for an upcoming post that will be), and another old oriental rug because that’s how I do.

Yay, opium den! Let’s do it!

The Bedroom is…a Bedroom!

For the past couple of months, my bedroom has been in that “almost done” state, which is where that last 5-10% of finishing work often goes to die. Once the walls were painted and a bed was assembled, I was honestly kind of sick of working on it…and so…I didn’t. I got distracted with something else. Sometimes you gotta move on to something that feels exciting, and then circle back when the spirit moves you.

I’ve also been traveling a bit so time at my house has been stretched thin, but last week I finally circled back around to the bedroom! Over the course of a few hours, I used Rejuvenate on the beat-up and heavily scratched floors (I don’t know what to expect in terms of longevity, but at least for now it’s made a HUGE difference! It’s also extremely easy to use and dries quickly! I’ll refinish the floors for real someday, but not today), sanded a couple little patch jobs, touched up paint, hung stuff on the walls, and…now it actually feels like a room! There’s still work to do on a few important things, and lots I’d like to change, but that’s how I roll. When it comes to my own spaces, it usually takes me a year or two after the renovation part is done to feel good about the decorating part. I’ll keep ya posted.

For some reason I seem to have neglected to take much in the way of real “before” photos of this room, which makes me want to go back in time and kick myself! Obviously this is poor blogger form, but I think at the time it felt like the room wasn’t likely to look very different after renovation than it did before renovation.

Then shit got real.

We’ve been through this, but all the walls got stripped down to bare plaster, then that wall to the right in the photo above got demo’d out entirely, then a new window got installed as part of restoring the side of the house (a project that I can finally finish now that the weather is getting nice!), plumbing and electric and insulation got upgraded, and then it was a matter of drywalling, skim-coating the plaster, and trying to replicate the original moldings for the new window!

Of course then there was a ton of scraping and prepping and patching and caulking and priming and finally painting and cleaning (what a concept!) and then I was pooped.

SEE?! It’s a room! A real room!

I love this picture because if you had shown me this four years ago when I was in the process of buying this house…I don’t even know. I would have cried? I would have run? This room seemed like such a straightforward renovation, but the decision to add a fourth window made it a significantly larger undertaking.

But a few months later and it’s hard to even remember that crazy day when you could walk through my wall and plummet to the ground outside. YAY!

The new window sashes still need the interiors painted (and the exteriors cleaned up—I painted them but didn’t scrape the paint off the top sash before it got too cold to remove the sashes and deal with it!), but this fourth window! It changes the room SO MUCH and I’m so glad I did it. It might be hard to appreciate in photos, but it just adds so much balance to a room that felt nice before, but awkward to arrange furniture in. When I’ve had the bed on this wall before, it looked so strange because you wouldn’t really want it overlapping the window on one side to get it more centered in the room, but shoving it over looked weird too and left this space on the side of the bed really narrow. And that was a full bed, which as a grown-ass man I’m happy to leave behind for a larger queen size. Since this is the nicest bedroom in the house, the fact that it can now even gracefully accept a king-sized bed feels like a huge deal. Now, it’s a master.

Speaking of beds, I got the alchemy bronze queen bed from CB2! I loved this glamfabulous thing as soon as it was introduced, and now it’s mine. My thinking was that it would work well with this situation, where the best placement for a bed overlaps the windows a bit—it’s there, but light and transparent enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s dominating or covering up all my hard work. I…think? It’s tricky and I’m not sure I made the right call, but I do really love the bed and I’ll figure it out! I will say that the quality of the bed is really great—I was worried that it might be a little flimsy, but the metal is thick and weighty and the construction is super sturdy. Assembly was really easy—two people are suggested but I got by on my own no problem.

I’m NOT showing off the bed very well because…I don’t have a mattress yet! This is my old full-size mattress which I plopped on there in the meantime. LIKE I SAID, GLAMFABULOUS. I’ll very likely go with one of those newfangled mattress-in-a-box-Internet-miracle companies. I know I love a Leesa, but I’ve never tried any of the others and now there are so many options that it almost defeats the purpose of making mattress shopping simple! Traditional mattress shopping is the actual worst thing in the world, though, so…not complaining.

As for what I don’t love…

  1. I’ve tried to love this rug for years after I bought it off Craigslist back when I lived in Brooklyn, and I just…don’t. I love old oriental rugs, but this particular style has never been my favorite. So I’ll be keeping my eye out for a good 8×10-ish perfectly old rug for the foreseeable future!
  2. I love Bubble lamps but the right light fixture could easy persuade me to swap this out and move it elsewhere. That’s always a fun game.
  3. I like that IKEA floor lamp (discontinued now, sorry!) but not here. Also once I figure out my bedside lighting situation, I won’t need a lamp there. But I will need a plant. I killed mine.
  4. Speaking of bedside lighting, I’d like some.
  5. And they need something to sit on top of, so I need bedside tables. I bought these little Scandinavian numbers a few years ago from a lady on Craigslist and threw them in here for now, but I’m a person who likes to have a drawer or two next to the bed. And also a person who’s never felt good about a mismatched set of end tables—I like a pair. Incidentally good nightstands, at the right size, with storage, and within my price range is potentially impossible? We shall see.
  6. Shades! This one I actually already figured out—I hope! I ended up ordering simple solar shades (I’m predictable!) from Blindsmax.com in a color called “bone,” which is sort of a warm off-white, a bit darker than the trim. Blindsmax seems to be the least expensive option around for simple, customizable solar shades (along with a ton of other window treatment options!). At about $120 per window (for my sizes + custom options—it varies a lot depending!) they certainly add up, but considering most everywhere else seems to be about double that, it’s OK. I currently have some very busted IKEA shades (the predecessors to these, I believe, but mine appear to be discontinued to which I say GOOD RIDDANCE) on two of the four windows, so I’m excited for those leave the premises. I love IKEA but those shades are such garbage.

Back to what I do love…my dresser with its new set of matching repro glass knobs! Also the little concrete and brass table lamp by Menu, which I also loved at first sight and then received from my mommy for my birthday. Thank you, Mommy! The brass knob dims the light up and down, and it lets off such a nice warm glow. I live in terror of breaking it.  It might end up living somewhere else in the house, but ya know. Having something there is nice.

I still have to paint all three of the doors in this room, which I’ll get around to…at some point. It’s not like it’s a huge deal to paint a door, but I like to take them down and strip down the hinges and knobs and stuff, and these all hang a little funny so getting them to open all the way and actually close ends up making it kind of an ordeal.

Also, my mirror! You might recognize this mirror from my old kitchen—I bought it at a junk shop shortly after buying the house, and it’s still one of my favorite things. I have such a problem with old mirrors. It goes without saying, but AS IF this room needed more natural light (it can get VERY bright in here!), it bounces light around nicely. And now it’s hung at a normal height, so it also reflects my face back to me when I look at it! Isn’t that something.

Over the newly-painted radiator (which is holding up perfectly!), I hung a print from my friend Anna‘s Society 6 shop, K is for Black! This is the “Watermelon” print which I just love, in a simple RIBBA frame from IKEA. The print itself has that white border, so you don’t even need to mat it. The paper/print quality of Society 6 stuff is really excellent and I’m so pleased to FINALLY have one of Anna’s pieces hanging up in my house!

That’s kinda it! Even though this room underwent a big renovation, doing the vast majority of the work myself and using stuff I already had kept costs really low. If you discount the cost of the new window ($350) and the installation (maybe another $300, since Edwin helped me with that part—but I’d factor those costs into the exterior renovation), there’s basically no money in here! The insulation and drywall was leftover from other projects, all of the wood used for the window casing was salvage, I bought exactly one gallon of paint for the walls (Benjamin Moore Oil Cloth—matte!) but already had ceiling and trim paint…there’s maybe $100 dollars or so of materials here, purchased specifically of this room? Something like that! Like I always say, hoard with purpose and it pays off. I find that I need to break up bigger and more expensive projects (like the exterior restoration, or the upcoming kitchen) with getting rooms like this out of the way…and I’m so glad the bedroom is finally out of the way!

Lowe’s Spring Makeover: Dream Team in Baltimore Edition!

Here’s a crazy proposition for you: take five house-bloggers who’ve never worked together, plop them in a city far away from any of their homes, and give them a kitchen to renovate top to bottom in three days. Sit back, relax, and see if they all survive?

That’s pretty much what our friends at Lowe’s asked me, Kim and Scott, and Julia and Chris to do. HOW EXCITING AND ALSO TERRIFYING?! Sure, why not!

I’ll tell you why not.

Because renovations are hard, and usually take a while, and cost a lot of money, and it’s difficult enough to make decisions by yourself without adding four other opinions to the mix about every little thing that goes into creating a room—especially one with as many moving parts as a kitchen! Amplify that chorus of opinions and different approaches and methods when something unexpected comes up (newsflash—it always comes up) and you possibly have a recipe for five otherwise nice people who happily coexist on the internet to, I don’t know, murder each other. I might have said a resounding YASSSSSS to joining this Dream Team without fully appreciating the risks involved.

BUT! WE DID NOT KILL EACH OTHER! Quite the opposite, actually! All that stuff I said above, about the lack of time and slim budget and difficult decisions and unexpected surprises and multitude of opinions and methods? Actually made it a lot better. It was FUN, folks. Everybody brought many-somethings to the table, and it was truly a privilege to work alongside all these talented and kind and hardworking and awesome people. Here’s how it all went down!

Chris and Julia were our brave team leaders, and the ones who had the pleasure/pain of sifting through over 2,500 applications that were submitted. Insanity! They narrowed to a top ten, at which point me and Kim and Scott weighed in, and then Chris and Julia duked it out some more (in literally the kindest way possible, I’m sure, because they are aggressively nice always, but most especially to each other), and that landed us in this 1900 Baltimore rowhouse owned by Aura and Nate, renovating this kitchen! Can you smell the potential from there? That’s one pretty dreamy project, I’d say!

Then Julia and Chris spent a few weeks going between the homeowners, each other, and our pals at Lowe’s to figure out a reasonable scope of work and, of course, a whole design plan! Obviously we had to be able to do it in 3 days, which was the first major requirement, but we also had to get it done for under 5K (including all new appliances!!) and create a kitchen that would complement the age of the home while balancing the homeowners’ more modern sensibilities. Easy, right? HA. HA. HA.

So Chris and Julia sent Kim and Scott and me the design plan, and one of the first notes was something to the effect of “we’re not really sure what to do about the columns.”

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE COLUMNS?! SAY WHAT?! Then it emerged that the homeowners disliked the columns and were convinced that they couldn’t be original to the house, like maybe they were a hokey post-modern 1980s addition or something? Which I can totally understand because people did do some horrible stuff sort of meant to look like this in the 80s, but NO! This is not that! They’re wood, they have a thousand layers of paint on them…they’re the best part of the whole space! I thought that’s why we picked it! Ionic goodness! I will tie myself to those columns and take a sledgehammer to the gut before watching them get demolished! That or they will come back to New York with me and live in my basement until I figure out what to do with them! So immediately, Daniel Kanter is causing drama over old house stuff. I’m zero fun to work with; ask anyone.

But in classic Chris and Julia fashion, they were generous about hearing me out, quickly course-corrected, and I think implored the homeowners to trust us and let us work with the columns instead of against them. Thankfully they agreed and we could all proceed in a non-violent fashion.

By the time we arrived Thursday evening, here’s where we were! Nate and Aura had been busy bees, ripping out the dingy tile floors and upper cabinets and formica backsplash. We knew, I think, that we were going to demo the old soffit, but…IMMEDIATE CURVEBALL, THAT CEILING IS FAKE! Nobody knew this. Haha!

It’s hard to appreciate in photos but was pretty dramatic in real life—that’s the actual ceiling height above the soffits…almost a foot and a half higher than the existing one! So we were working with, in order from top to bottom: ceiling joists at about 9.5 feet, lath, plaster, furring strips, acoustic tiles, and then a whole second ceiling shoddily framed at about 8 feet and sheetrocked. Those “beams” are completely decorative—just 1×6 pine boards stained brown and glued and nailed to the drywall. Of course the modern framing did not run beyond the soffits or over the pantry closet we removed, so Chris and Julia and I had an emergency team meeting (“Hi Chris, nice to meet you!”) before Kim and Scott’s plane even landed to discuss what to do!

The options were:

  1. Keep the existing ceiling, patch in where necessary, and somehow figure out how to remove the “beams” or extend them so it would all look continuous. This plan was problematic for several reasons (is it actually any easier or faster than just taking it out altogether? Because the “beams” were glued up, they’d take a lot of drywall with them on their way down. Also, lame! Who doesn’t want higher ceilings! Go big or go home!), so my solution was to get bossy and loud until that option was off the table. I DID IT FOR THE COMMON GOOD, OK?!
  2. Total demo, new sheetrock. OY VEY. Nobody wants to demo plaster, ever, and that’s a HUGE extra amount of mess and waste to squeeze into in an already extremely packed order of work. Then I innocently asked if anybody was particularly good at drywall work, because hanging is the easy part but mudding and taping typically takes three days alone and is very difficult to do well, especially on a ceiling! Nobody seemed all that confident so it seemed like maybe testing our underdeveloped drywall skills on a stranger’s ceiling that had to be done in a matter of hours was not the best place to take a gamble.
  3. Something else! So I suggested leaving the plaster and lath intact and furring strips in place, and affixing our new ceiling material to that. But what material? Beadboard, duhz! But actual tongue-and-groove beadboard would have also been a big time-suck and pretty expensive for the square footage we needed, so I suggested those inexpensive 4×8 MDF panels that look like beadboard, with some nice simple molding treatment to cover the seams. Easy and fast, I told everyone! I promise!*

*never listen to me if I claim anything will be easy and fast. it never is.

But after looking at a couple inspiration images, Chris and Julia were on board and so we walked into Day 1 with a reasonably solid plan and tried to project confidence about it to two increasingly wary homeowners who were probably beginning to regret signing onto this madness while watching us immediately dive in to just wrecking their house. It felt exactly like that scene from The Money Pit. You know the one.

Let. The. Games. Begin.

Can I just say that watching Kim and Scott work together in real life just warmed every cockle of my cold jaded heart? Scott has the enthusiasm of a camp counselor and Kim has the patience of a saint and they’re both so good at just doing it right. It’s a jealousy-inducing pleasure to witness. Jerks.

Here’s a classic when-one-thing-leads-to-another moment—we did not plan on demoing this whole wall, but it was sheetrock over 2×3 furring strips over plaster over lath, but the drywall and furring strips didn’t run all the way up to our new ceiling height! Added to that, we needed to get them some outlets and a sconce on this wall, and the wall to the right of the window was inexplicably bumped out a few inches, so once again I was like “HEY GUYS LET’S JUST RIP IT ALL OUT!” and for some reason they listened to me. Suckerrsssss.

Check it out though—you can see where there was once a window! We momentarily considered using the void, at Aura’s brilliant suggestion, to do little recessed shelves for spices and stuff, but then again we already had a more functional shelving plan and it probably was not the best plan to leave that big space uninsulated for the sake of cuteness. I love that idea though—slightly different circumstances and it would have been SO GOOD.

UGH, KIMMY MY LOVE! Obsessed with this one. POSSIBLY my favorite part of this whole experience was when Kim shocked and delighted me with a stiff slap on the ass while I was bending down to do something, and then we spent three days waiting for various opportunities to get back at each other. CAN YOU BLAME ME.

I’ll stop objectifying Kim now.

ALSO JULIA. SIT DOWN, LADY! She was the only one among us simultaneously growing another human being inside her body, and she’s still an beast! She was appropriately cautious and safe and all that, but good lord if anyone had an excuse to sit out of some physical work, it was her! Serious. Badass. If that baby isn’t tiling walls with the best of them by the time she’s in preschool, I will be shocked.

Just to give you a small sense of the pace of all this, it was insaneeeeee. My house would be done in a week if I had all these amazing people around! OFFER STANDS, YOU GUYS.

Literally before the dust from demo had settled, Chris and Scott and Chris’s brother Brandon were following behind with sheetrock! Scott ran mesh tape and Chris and Brandon tag-teamed the first coat of mud. Seriously, blink and everything changes.

While the joint compound dried, Chris and Brandon started cutting our faux-beadboard panels to size (we didn’t use full sheets so that we could arrange things in a more visually pleasing grid) and Scott and I worked together hanging them up! We ran construction adhesive across the furring strips and attached the panels with 16 gauge finish nails from a pneumatic nail gun. Pow, pow! It was a little tricky to get the hang of because the nail depth had to be set jusssstttt right to hold the panels instead of going right through them. The homeowners followed behind with a nail-set to sink any stubborn nails, and then covered each hole with a little dab of spackling compound to be sanded smooth later.

At this point the ceiling looked like total garbage and even I was privately a little nervous about it. Without anything covering the seams and a bunch of nail holes, it just looked really flimsy and not attractive at all. DON’T WORRY!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…I do not enjoy skim-coating. But you guys, practice pays off!! Since we hung sheetrock over a 120 year old brick wall with 120 year old furring strips and 120 year old lath, things were not exactly even—easily a recipe for seeing every seam and having a drywall job that would look terrrrrible. I mean, we could blow it out enough in photos to look nice for you guys, but that ain’t our game! So I took on the second and third finish coats of joint compound, and guys…crushed it. I wouldn’t normally gloat like this (maybe I would? maybe self-awareness is not my strong suit?) but I was using fast-setting 45-minute joint compound, so you have to work fast, and I couldn’t sand much because people were painting and tiling and stuff so I had to burnish the walls with a spray bottle and a trowel, plaster-style…anyway, I’m proud of that there drywall work! After paint it looked totally pro.

Also, window trim! I pushed to match the moldings to the ones around the columns, which were just simple 1-by lumber with rosettes in the corners, and Lowe’s carries a near-perfect match! I made a quick windowsill out of a standard pine stair tread, chamfered the apron on the table saw because we didn’t have a router…ya know, special little details. Fun times!

While cabinets were going up and getting painted, Scott and I worked away on finishing up the ceiling install! Originally we thought we’d maybe use little lattice strips to cover the seams and a more traditional crown molding around the room, but I LOVE what we landed on! We used 1×4 (pre-primed boards to save time) to cover the seams, and as a super minimal crown treatment around the whole room! I love how substantial it looks without feeling overdone.

The home stretch was an absolute flurry of activity. Everyone trying to get their projects checked off the list while also staying out of each other’s way…madness! When exactly nobody volunteered to do the crown molding around the tops of the cabinets (we’re wimpy about some stuff, I guess!), Chris jumped in and banged it out in like half an hour! Awesome. Kim, Aura, Nate, and Julia took on tiling the backsplash, which is just simple and budget friendly 3×6 white subway tile—just 22 cents a tile! Can’t beat that, and of course it’s a clean, classic choice that allows other features like the exposed brick wall to really shine instead of competing.

Scott had to get back to Chicago on Sunday afternoon (I do NOT envy that he then had to wake up Monday morning and go to his super serious grown-up job…this was EXHAUSTING!), Julia and Kim and I worked until about 2 in the morning before turning in, and Chris and Brandon stayed all night laying the flooring! Then on Monday morning there was a mad dash to the finish, adding extra coats of poly to the countertops and installing baseboards and shoe molding, and caulking and touch-up painting everything in sight. But we got her done. And she looks goooood!

From this…

To this!

THREE DAYS, PEOPLE! There wasn’t nearly the time to throw a full column restoration into the mix, but we did give them a fresh coat of paint in satin finish to match the rest of the moldings. Just knocking down the super high gloss paint that was there before made a huge difference in making them look like the beautiful and grand antiques that they are instead of a kind of misplaced vestige from another time. You go, columns!

AND GUESS WHAT? Aura said, without prompting or persuasion, that the columns fit in now! They work! And that, to me, was the best. Learning to love what makes their house unique and special is kind of the best possible outcome, right?

Let’s take a walk around!

Even though the window molding butts right up to the fridge surround, it just feels so…right, I think! The windowsill almost got nixed in favor of a more simple casing, but I really think it’s that kind of detail that makes it feel authentic to the age of the house. It’s really not a lot of extra work to just do it up right!

Also, check out those shelves! Such a good idea, Miss Julia! I guess the brackets are meant to be table legs, but Chris drilled pilot holes through the backs so they could be mounted to the walls and used as shelving brackets. Fun!

The ceiling! The ceiling! I really really do love the way it came out. I wouldn’t typically use those MDF panels because I like to make things as painful as possible and use the real deal (also available at Lowe’s, of course!), but they really look great after the requisite patching and caulking and painting. Everyone was pretty into it, and—joking aside—it really was very uncomplicated to do and looks way fancier than the price tag would indicate at just 63 cents per square foot!

Even the little existing pantry closet got a lot of attention, and actually fits in now! I wish it was just a few inches shallower and didn’t overlap the original moldings, but in terms of working with what you’ve got…it’s a huge improvement! The bifolds got painted and new hardware, and I added another simple casing to match the window and original moldings with a simple 1×6 baseboard with a stock base cap to finish it off. I had to play dirty to get those moldings…Dad (Chris) said no because he was worried about time so, ya know, I had to go ask Mom (Julia) who gave me the go-ahead. I’m the worst! Scotty built out the top with a few pieces of framing lumber, 3/4″ plywood, and cove molding to bring the height up to the ceiling.

Funnily enough, I had no idea that the plan for the countertops was exactly what I did for my countertops in my now-demolished kitchen a few years ago! They look kind of like butcherblock but are really just 3/4″ pine project panels (small pieces of finger-jointed pine, essentially), with a 1×2 pine board face-nailed to the front to give the impression of a normal countertop thickness. These got stained with Minwax “Provincial” and three coats of water-based poly.

To be totally honest, since I feel I bear some responsibility here—the countertops aren’t something I’d recommend for a long-term remodel. Mine held up OK for the couple of years that they were in use, but not amazing, and real butcherblock is a more expensive but still very affordable (and classic!) choice. Given the budget these were a good answer, though, and they’ll be really easy to swap out down the line should the homeowners choose. Conveniently, Lowe’s happens to sell really beautiful and good quality (not to mention affordable!) butcherblock in a few different sizes (which of course can be easily cut to size), which is something I’m considering for my own remodeled kitchen! So, ya know, proceed with caution—there’s a reason for that difference in price and I’d recommend spending the little extra money for the real deal if you’re renovating for the long haul.

Oh! That brick!!! Isn’t it great? It was just hiding under the plaster. I’m not always a fan of exposed brick, actually, but it works so well here. The homeowners had already exposed it by the time we got there (THANK YOU, GUYS!!) and it’s just so perfectly-imperfect in a way that a new brick veneered wall or something wouldn’t be. It’s sealed to keep any dust and stuff contained.

So there it is, I guess! A kitchen in three days, with five bloggers and a handy blogger-brother too! And want to hear something that even shocked me, even though I was literally there the whole time? The budget came in at right around $4,500—and that includes all materials, cabinets, a new fridge, stove, range hood fan, dishwasher, sink, faucet, lighting…I MEAN, COME ON.

I love that the final product isn’t something any one of us would have done independently—it really does have a piece of everybody represented, and it’s so much better for it!

Now come to Kingston, you guys! Mine next! I GUESS we could even give ourselves a whole week or something crazy. Plus a spa day at the end. Definitely a spa day.

If you want to read more about this renovation, don’t miss Kim and Scott’s recap over at Yellow Brick Home and, of course, our fearless leaders’ take over at Chris Loves Julia! I’m off to go do that myself, ha! Chris, Julia, Brandon, Kim, and Scott (and Nate and Aura, of course!)—thank you thank you thank you for being the best teammates ever and bringing me in on the fun. I had a blast and can’t wait to do it again. Hint, hint, Lowe’s PR. :)

This post is in partnership with my long-time sponsors and pals over at Lowe’s! Thank you for your support, friends!

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