All posts tagged: Backyard

The Great Dirt-Moving Effort!

Every year it’s the same: I spend all winter being sad about the cold, and then spring and summer hit and I’m all like HOLD UP because that means I have to pick up where I left off with exterior work. The earlier I get to it the better because summers here are hot and muggy, but of course there are a finite number of hours in the day so the interior work slows way down. Which is sad, because the interior of my house is still…well, a work in progress, let’s say. A work in progress that’s occasionally frustrating to live in, that I have to force myself to de-prioritize during these warmer months because otherwise the exterior might, I dunno, get overtaken by weeds and die of neglect. Houses, man. Yards. They keep you busy. I do not recommend them if you value free time.

With so much work constantly happening both on the interior and exterior of the house, the backyard in particular has inched along veryyyy slowly. I’ve probably put more effort into the street-facing front and side gardens, primarily in the hope that a few decent-looking plants might distract from the…less charming aspects of my perpetually-being-renovated house. But the back? It’s basically a blank slate. I have a fence. I have some patchy grass. In terms of other amenities, my yard also offers a pile of chimney bricks, a steady supply of dog shit and toys laying around, a ton of irregular bluestone pieces, and a few scraggly plants I’ve stuck in the ground.

It’s not like I have acreage or anything, but I do have a really large yard for Kingston! It’s part of what I love about the house, but it’s also a lot to take care of. And a lot to figure out, because I want it to be a beautiful lush amazing (much more private!!!) paradise but I also find it kind of discouraging because of how much time and money I’ve already dumped into it.

Yes, you read that right. Those two pictures above are the products of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of hard work. CAN’T YOU TELL? DO YOU FEEL MOTIVATED YET?!?

I guess I know it could be worse, because oh boy has it been worse! Sometimes when I’m out here feeling so sad and dejected about my barren landscape, I have to remind myself of how the majority of the yard was asphalt when I bought this place! The whole yard was covered in snow the first time I saw the house, so this actually came as a surprise at the first or second walk-through, but at that point I was too in love with the house for a little blacktop to scare me off.

“We’ll just get it removed!” I proclaimed with confidence.

And it did get removed…to the tune of about $2,000, if memory serves, because I have refused to think about it since. YIKES. It took 5 full days and multiple backhoes and excavators to get it done. The thing I didn’t totally realize at the time is that under the asphalt would be a layer of large gravel (item #4, if you wanna get all technical about it), so you have to remove a lot of material to get back down to something resembling clean-ish dirt.

Like, a lot a lot. About TWENTY dump trucks worth.

At the end, they did what they could to flatten everything out and left this attractive scene, which soon started to fill in with weeds. Sure, I’ll take it!

Then it rained. And rained a few more times. And that area that had been covered with asphalt? Turned into a very large, shallow pond. Which, in the winter, turned into a sheet of ice. It’s a shame that depth gets so lost in photos because it really doesn’t portray how bad this was!

The lumpy piles of dirt behind Mekko is all the grass I excavated out of the front garden by hand and then rolled back here in a wheelbarrow. I adorably thought this would solve the problem or at least improve things, but the dent it made was…negligible.

A little while later, I transported a couple pick-up truck loads of dirt from Bluestone Cottage’s front yard, since that yard needed to be graded down and this one needed to be graded up. “This’ll fix it!” I thought to myself again.

Not remotely.

At this point, the availability of free solutions had seemed to run out, and with the new fence in placereally wanted to start getting the backyard in shape! So I stuck the plastic stakes from Lowe’s into the ground and attached a long length of neon pink nylon twine between them, pulling VERY taught. This helped me see where the lowest points were and build up as needed. I considered getting a delivery of soil, but the delivery was kind of expensive, and even with a soil calculator (like this one!), I didn’t feel confident that I had any idea how much I actually needed. I also liked the idea of bringing it into the yard in manageable chunks rather than having the landscaping place deposit a mountain-sized pile that I’d have to just chip away at, blocking my driveway until it was all gone. Hauling it myself seemed, at the time, to make a lot of practical sense.

Not that long before, I got a new car—a practical Subaru SUV. I kept saying that perhaps a pick-up truck would be a better investment at least for this period in my life when hauling large and heavy things is such a regular occurrence, but everyone in my life seemed to think this was patently ridiculous. So instead I got this utility trailer, the bed of which is slightly over 4×8 feet, meaning it’s perfect for drywall and plywood and lumber. I subsequently learned that the trailer is a complete pain in the ass, and difficult to steer in reverse, and in short order I managed to crunch both front corners of my bumper and a rearview mirror while trying to maneuver it. More recently the trailer became unhitched on a job site and smashed the trunk in, too. I hate that thing with the fire of a thousand suns. But also I need it. Because I didn’t buy the pick-up.

SO ANYWAY, now my still-new-ish car is super fucked and the trailer is not holding up annnnddddddd next time maybe I should listen less to those around me when it comes to my driving/hauling needs. It’s all very stupid. That’s not what we’re here to talk about though. We’re talking about the much more exciting topic of dirt.

I took my jacked up car with my jacked up utility trailer to a local landscaping place, where they sell fill dirt. Things like this (mulch, gravel, etc) are usually sold by the “yard,” which you can think of as a 3′ x 3′ x 3′ cube. There are different types of dirt—topsoil is higher quality and full of nutrients and shit like that, and lesser soils are cheaper and good for fill but not great for growing gardens and stuff. I decided to start with cheaper fill, and then finish off with a layer of better topsoil.

About 1 yard of fill fits in that trailer, or around 2,000 pounds, so thus commenced my new weekend tradition of getting as many loads into the yard as I could before it became either completely unbearable or the place closed. Because my trailer doesn’t have a hydraulic lift or anything fancy like that, I had to drive the trailer into the yard, climb in, unload the soil a shovel-full at a time, and then rake it out and level it.

Each time it seemed like SO MUCH DIRT and each time all that dirt barely made a dent.

So I kept having to go back to get more dirt.

Bring in the trailer, shovel it all out, spread, and go back for more. Did I mention how hot and muggy summers are here? This is the worst game I’ve ever played.

This was also getting expensive. A yard of fill from the landscaping place was about $45, so all of a sudden I’m spending literal hundreds of dollars and an obscene amount of effort to bring a bunch of crappy soil into my yard. THE JOYS OF HOMEOWNERSHIP!

After a couple weekends of this, I was bringing demolition debris of some variety to the dump, as I do. And then I saw something over yonder, in the distance.

Mounds. Mounds of dirt. JOE! TELL ME ABOUT THAT DIRT!

Joe is my friend at the dump. I like to bring him a milkshake if I go. Joe likes milkshakes.

Turns out, it’s county compost! From the county! Made at the dump! Literal garbage dirt! This is the dirt for meeeeeee!

It’s actually kind of cool—if you look closely at those mounds, on the far right there’s a pile of newly deposited branches and leaves and stuff. This is where the county’s yard waste bags end up, food scraps from the restaurant composting program, etc. There, they fester for a while, until enough of it has broken down to go into pile #2, and so on. Once it’s gone through this sequence, it goes into that red machine you see on the far left, which essentially grinds it up, breaking down any remaining branches or things that decompose slowly. Then it goes into another pile and continues to brew until somebody who might be me buys it. Cool. Gross. I like it.

Because it’s all compost, I assume this soil is actually much better than the soil I’d been getting, AND it was $35/ton (which is about a yard), so $10 cheaper than the landscaping place.

So I got a load.

Drive it home. Deposit the dirt. Spread the dirt. Go back again.

And again.

And again.

Also, again.

All told, I repeated this procedure THIRTY TIMES. Which means I moved, out of the trailer and into the yard by hand, roughly SIXTY THOUSAND POUNDS of dirt. Just dirt. It was SO much more than I anticipated.

This has to be the least satisfying way I have ever managed to blow through more than a thousand dollars. I stopped keeping track because it was just too depressing.

BUT HARD WORK PAYS OFF! JUST LOOK AT THIS OASIS I CREATED! It just feels like such a SANCTUARY from the outside world and…oh wait, sorry wrong slide. That’s Bunny William’s garden.

LOOK AT THIS OASIS I CREATED! LUSH! VERDANT! A TRUE OUTDOOR LIVING SPACE FIT FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY!

Fortunately this is not a current picture, and things have improved somewhat steadily since that time. I’ve been terrible about sharing backyard progress, I think because I keep waiting for some part of it to look great. And what am I going to do, write a whole post about…moving 30 tons of dirt?

Then I decided that’s exactly what I’ll do, because progress is progress. No lie, it BLOWS that it took this much time and effort and money to get to this very barren depressing square 1, but a lot of landscaping work (hell, renovation work!) is a very long slog that only starts to feel good when all that slow progress accumulates to something that finally feels worthwhile. We have a couple of summers worth of work to catch up on, though, so in lieu of stunning After! images that are realistically probably a decade away, let’s just try to enjoy this whole process for the grueling and occasionally exciting operation that it is! I guess.

So I Re-Did the Back of the House (Again).

Here is a shocking bit of information that you have likely already deduced if you have read this blog for any amount of time: I’ve been chasing my tail a bit with my own house renovation. I’m not proud. A couple of years ago, I bit off more than I could chew. I should have known better. I did it anyway. Unsurprisingly, it bit me in the ass.

Let’s talk about it.

I bought a house with an old and truly yucky kitchen. The kitchen was the very first thing I tackled, and ya know? That was a good renovation. The improvements were inexpensive but impactful (new paint, a little subway tile, and VCT floors for the win!), and the kitchen worked fairly well.

It wasn’t the dream kitchen but it was a fine, serviceable space, and one that could have easily lasted several more years. The kitchen took kind of a beating as other renovations unfolded throughout the house, but I’d renovated it with that in mind! It would all get torn out someday but, I figured, when everything else had been done, by which time this kitchen would certainly be falling apart.

Fast forward less than two years, and I found myself single. One night, I also found myself a little drunk (related: pls excuse the quality of these photos). With the contents of my kitchen cabinets now significantly slimmed down as a result of the break-up, I was suddenly overcome with the urge to slim down the cabinets themselves. I didn’t NEED all these cabinets! And if I just took down the upper cabinets, then I could also just rip out the enormous soffits above them, and then my kitchen would be brighter and more open and happier and maybe I’d put up a nice shelf or just a cool piece of art and HOW GREAT WOULD THIS BE?!?!

Don’t drink and demo. Or do, but with supervision so you don’t do anything stupid. Like meeeeeeeeeee.

So I took down the uppers and the soffits. Briefly this felt good.

I had to re-route the electrical for the little over-the-sink light, and drywall the area that had been behind the soffit because the plaster was too far-gone. I just had to do some more patching, sanding, repaint a couple walls and the kitchen would be good as new!

I really should have taken a bath or something that night. I never did patch and sand and repaint. Instead, a few months later I seized the remainder of summer and demolished the rickety old addition off the back of the house.

Boy was that exciting.

This, in turn, prompted replacing the window and vestigial fire escape exit door in the second floor room above the kitchen and insulating and re-siding the back of the house—it was a huge job and one that I wasn’t totally ready for. One of the casualties ended up being the kitchen window, a cute casement that got split up into two casements for the second floor, like so:

So I ripped the kitchen window out, put in a “temporary” vinyl window, still thinking I’d patch up the kitchen and continue to use it for another 5-10 years and this would be good enough for now.

I never did patch up the kitchen. The wall surrounding the new window just remained open to the studs and insulation for the next several months. Elegant!

Then I designed and built an entire house (I. will. show. it. to. you. I. swear.), and at the tail end of that little gig, I circled back to my own. I did this with great excitement because I hadn’t been able to put any real work into my own house for a while, so naturally I took on the biggest and most involved project this house will ever see under my care: the enormous restoration of the side of the house.

This saw the removal of two more additions and the installation of five(!) new windows—two of them in the kitchen, but a different wall than the one from the year before. Round and round we go.

In order to install these new windows, we first had to frame in the openings for them. We probably could have gone about this a couple of more intelligent ways, but instead at that point it just felt like…fuck it. Just gut it. So that’s what we did, and suddenly my kitchen and pantry were reduced to a few remaining cabinets and a sink. Which I then also removed because it felt like they were in the way of completing the next steps, which I was sure I’d be addressing imminently.

So dumbbbbbbbbb, omg Daniel.

But at least I had two windows where I needed them to be…you know, for the kitchen that still has not manifested.

Before I could really even address the kitchen, I had to actually wrap up that whole side-of-the-house-restoration project on the exterior before winter hit. I ran out of time and didn’t totally finish, and shamefully still haven’t, but I finished enough that things have been fine.

I ran out of something else around that time too, though! The money in my bank account! That exterior project was more involved and costly than I’d given it credit for, and it cleaned. me. OUT.

THIS, my friends, was a bit over a year ago, and it was truly a low point. The house was a wreck. What was left of the kitchen (appliances, some cabinetry) had overtaken the dining room. The living room was mostly just exceptionally dirty from the renovations but literally felt unsalvageable at the time, like it might after a flood. The bedroom was missing a wall. The den was missing a wall and a ceiling. I hadn’t managed to get a plumber to come cap a couple of radiator lines and get the boiler going, so I didn’t have a real heat system that winter. I couldn’t figure out how to get hot water running either (turns out the motherboard of the boiler had died!) so I took frigid showers or sponge baths with water from the electric kettle, since I no longer had a stove to heat it. This went on for months.

Guys, it was fucking horrible. In the summer, cold showers and doing my dishes on the front porch had felt kind of quaint and folksy, but now it just felt like I could not be more of a disappointment to myself and to this house. And it was my fault. Decisions I had made myself had led me here. To Grey Gardens, my new home.

We ain’t done.

I guess it was kind of OK to not have the cash to do the kitchen a year ago, in part because there were plenty of low-cost projects to keep me occupied, like the bedroom and the den. You can do a lot with joint compound and paint between bigger projects, so I just focused on that kind of stuff. Besides, there was another huge roadblock in front of really even getting the kitchen renovation started, aside from the money part: re-doing that back wall…again. Already. The one that I already did two years prior, when I thought I wouldn’t have to think about it again for a decade or so. The kitchen design kind of hinged (pun def intended) on moving the location of the exterior door, and replacing the temporary vinyl window, so the chimney could be flanked by two matching windows to the new ones on the other elevation.

I’d hoped, I think, that this would somehow just happen. Like I’d wake up and find windows and doors where my computer renderings had placed them, and then I could move ahead into the rough-ins and the finishing work!

Sadly this did not come to pass. So at the tail end of this past summer, with the goal of being able to really work on the kitchen this winter, I bit the bullet and Edwin and Edgar and I took a week and did it (followed by a few weeks of me working alone every evening/weekend…). I had a better idea of what I was getting into, so it wasn’t as bad as the first time around, and I had a bit more help. So we took out the door and the vinyl window.

Then we removed the siding from the first floor (again) because it seemed a bit easier than all the patching that would have been required otherwise.

All of this pretty much sucked, by the way.

Once that kitchen wall was framed and the windows installed, we moved on to putting the wall back together.

One thing I never loved about the first revamp of this wall was that I hadn’t taken the opportunity to expand the corner boards. The original corner boards are 4″ on this house, which feels kind of dinky below such a substantial cornice and eaves returns, so we popped off the corner boards and cut another 4″ or so off the ends of the remaining clapboard with a circular saw. Inside the house, we added new nailers so the new ends of the clapboard would be affixed to something stable. The new corner boards are 7.5″ wide on this back kitchen addition, and 11.5″ on earlier parts of the structure. It’s a small thing that makes a big difference! And doesn’t really complicate anything if you’re doing all this work anyway.

Boom! Someday I’ll trim out the tops of the corner boards to really finish it off, but for now they look fine.

MOVING. RIGHT. ALONG! Next came the new exterior door location and the windows for the planned pantry space and the first floor powder room. Just rebuilding every goddamn wall. The new door is off-center to accommodate cabinetry in that room, and I think an exterior wall sconce to the right of the doorway will be a welcome addition and balance things out.

By the way, yeah—that new door is in what was my laundry room. Also gutted to make space for this big ambitious kitchen plan. In case you thought things couldn’t get worse! They got worse. They’re getting better again, though!

I swear all of this is in the service of someday being able to live a normal life in this house and NOT just destroying everything on a biannual basis.

That little crooked window on the left was the laundry room window. That little skinny window on the right was the first floor bathroom window. They were a funny weirdly proportioned pair, and now they are history. Down came the vinyl, down came the clapboard, out came the brick nogging and old windows, and in went some new framing and new insulation and sheathing and windows.

This is definitely the most awkward (and, thankfully, least visible!) elevation of the house, and I think it’s just always going to be something less than gorgeous. I hemmed and hawed a lot on how to make this window arrangement feel natural inside and outside the house, but ultimately the architecture is just weird—it’s always going to look like an addition, and that’s OK! I love to tear off additions, but sometimes you need them. Like, say, when they contain the only bathrooms!

So with these new windows, I aimed to make it look like a slightly more elegantly planned addition than before, like maybe a porch that was enclosed at some point. The windows themselves are the same proportion as most of the other windows on the house, but smaller (larger than what was there, though!), and the top of the windows align with the top of the newly installed adjacent back door. I also chose 2-over-2 windows, which I kinda pulled out of my ass because it just felt right and a 6-over-6 in that size is a bit much with all that lite division.

I can kinda dig hanging something between them and planting some fabulous climbing rose bush or something? That feels like a very distant goal so we have time to brainstorm.

Annnnnnnd, this is as far as I got out there! Clearly there are various things that still need doing, but all the big stuff is done. A little odd, but I’m pleased with it!

Do you like my little deck? It’s fancy. I built it in an afternoon out of scrap wood. The post rests on a piece of bluestone from the yard. Obviously I want to do something better but I had to get rid of that big drop ASAP and “something better” is not in the existing time or money budgets.

So to review, in the space of 4-ish years, we have now gone from this:

to this:

to this:

to this:

to this:

to this:

Clearly there is some finish work to return to in the spring (we don’t need to start listing it, do we?), but HEY! I know I seem crazy. My neighbors would probably concur on this. But NOW the kitchen/pantry/half-bath work can continue and—good lord willing and the creek don’t rise—I should never have to redo this again for as long as I am alive and kicking.

Let us pray.

Fixing the back of the House, Part 3! (it’s done!)

windowdetailshot

I did that!

If you’ve been following my blog for the past several of months, you’ve been pretty familiarized with the back of my house. I wrote a few pretty detailed posts about the process—which was somewhat grueling in the way that restoration work often is—so I won’t rehash the whole thing here. Suffice to say this was one of those projects that started as a fairly modest proposition and spiraled into a much bigger endeavor than I was prepared for.

Because this area of the house saw a lot of abuse over the years in the form of additions, non-original doors and windows, and the conversion of the house to a duplex with the legally-required fire escape, this is probably one of the more heavy-handed renovations this house is likely to see under my care. Most of the house is an extended exercise in restoring what’s already there, but this wall needed to be re-thought and re-imagined. Absent any evidence of how it looked back here originally, well, I kind of just had to let the house dictate what it seemed to want (with a little help from nearby examples). I know that sounds like voodoo, but that’s how I make probably the majority of my decisions about my house. We’re buds by now and she tells me what she needs.

SO! Additions were removed. Approximately 4 billion pounds of concrete got jackhammered and hauled away by the truck-fullVinyl siding was removed. All original clapboard was removed. All original brick and mortar insulation was removed. Then the walls were insulated. Original clapboard was planed down to remove all old paint and crap, then carefully put back up. New windows were framed, trimmed out, painted, and installed. Cornice details were restored. Siding was primed, caulked, and painted. Even the eavestrough on the laundry room roof was rebuilt. By me! I don’t know why I’m writing all of this in passive voice, because it sounds like it happened by magic.

It was not magic. It was a shit ton of work.

beforebefore

Take a gander at that! This is when I bought the house. I honestly don’t even remember thinking it was so bad but now I think it’s really pretty bad.

before

Fast-forward a year and the roof has been redone, with the overhang over the mudroom door and the fire escape removed in the process. Then that second floor door continued to hang out there, leading to nowhere, for roughly two years. It remained locked throughout the entire duration of that time, but it still looked a little…unique.

Angledviewafter1

BOOM.

I’m sorry I didn’t turn the kitchen light off when I took these pictures. I’m also sorry that the yard is such a total disaster. I couldn’t even move those black trashcans in the foreground because they’re full of bricks and currently frozen to the ground. I’m pretty fancy.

backofhouse1

In the past six months or so we went from this

newboard4

To this madness.

BackAfter1

And finally, to this! Long. Strange. Trip.

And yes, I know I’m crazy, but I still think of this as phase 1. Long-term, I can still see a nice covered porch out here, with that door switched to the other side and a nice 6-over-6 double-hung window where the door is, scaled more like the windows on the rest of the house. Theoretically the porch could have been done during this, but finances were running super dry and it’s not necessary right now. The current first floor window is just a cheap vinyl one that I spray-painted black so that I could use the sashes from the old kitchen window to make those two little windows upstairs. Changes to the door/window placement on the first floor might take place quite a while from now and would be part of a more extensive kitchen renovation than the slap-dash one I did when I moved in.

If I were to do it over again (and considering this is more or less the same process I plan to use on the rest of the house, I should have many opportunities), I’d do a few things differently.

  1. I would have probably sistered in new studs next to the originals to beef up the structure a bit. I’m not sure how much it’d actually accomplish, but it wouldn’t be a ton of money and it’d help support the old bones of this lady.
  2. I would have added blocking—or horizontal pieces of framing that span between vertical studs. This is common practice now, and required for spans of framing that are over 8 feet. It adds more structural stability and aids a little in fireproofing.
  3. I might have tried harder to add sheathing. This house is built with clapboard running right over the studs, and sheathing seems like it would add a little structural rigidity and create a more robust barrier between the inside of the house and the elements. Adding sheathing is complicated here because all of the trim work was installed with the thickness of this clapboard in mind, so I’m still not really sure how to accomplish this without throwing everything off.
  4. I might have experimented with using opaque stain (I like Cabot’s solid-color acrylic siding stain) rather than paint on the clapboard. I didn’t do this because the clapboard is still old with lots of knots, remnants of old finishes, and quite a bit of Bondo was employed to fill gaps and old nail holes and stuff, so I wasn’t sure how the stain would take given all of that. Instead I just went with what I knew, which was to use a good oil-based primer (I like Zinsser products) and two coats of flat exterior paint on top.
  5. I would have added flashing at the butt joints between boards. You wouldn’t see it, but it would be some added protection against water infiltration. I just didn’t know any better.
  6. I went back and forth and back and forth on beefing up the corner boards, and ultimately decided to leave them as-is. It wouldn’t be such a hard thing to change at some point, but I wasn’t ready to commit to it. I’m totally happy with the end result but I can see wider corner boards (maybe half the width of the frieze under the eaves returns) looking nice and kind of increasing the formality and stateliness of the architecture. I think that’s an OK thing to do, by the way—a person with more experience in restoration work than me once told me not to be afraid of getting too formal with old houses. As long as new details are added well and are in keeping with the house, it can be just fine to add stuff that wasn’t there originally. I try to keep that in mind when I get too hung up on just trying to stick with what’s original—those decisions made 150 years ago weren’t always the right ones, the best ones, or the most considered (unless they were, ha!), so who knows. I’ll keep thinking about it.

paintedclapboard

Look. At. That. Clapboard! It’s far from perfect, which is just fine. It makes me like it better. If I weren’t able to do so much of this work myself, it would probably have been totally impractical to try to reuse the original boards, given their prior condition. It might surprise some people to hear this, but my alternative would probably be to use JamesHardie lap siding with the same exposure as the original boards. Hardie (there are a few competitors, but that’s the big brand) is a cementitious wood composite product that does a nice job of mimicking the look of real clapboard, but requires less maintenance because it takes paint really well, is pest and rot resistance, and doesn’t expand and contract like wood does. It’s relatively inexpensive, too—so if you are thinking of re-siding but can’t reuse what’s already there and want to avoid real wood, CONSIDER IT, PLEASE. With all the products out there these days, I can’t fathom choosing vinyl or aluminum!

ANYWAY, I’m so happy (and proud!) that these are the original boards that were put on the house when it was built. I didn’t buy a single piece of lumber for this entire project, which feels both thrifty and environmentally responsible. And really, nothing would compare to these boards…the thickness, the character of the grain patterns, even the dents and divots and imperfections from so many years of use just enhance how right it looks on the house. New siding like Hardie (or even real wood) would have been fine and a huge improvement over the vinyl, but this is just…the best, I think.

backofhouse1

angledviewafter2

HAHAHAHA, OK, we don’t have to pretend like this “after” picture is the most satisfying thing in the world, but WHATEVER. Sometimes you just gotta make sure your clapboard is painted before winter hits and accept that you have garbage cans full of bricks and piles of bluestone and dirt for landscaping. Clearly I did not get as far into my backyard plans as I’d hoped, but progress is progress and I’ll take it!

littlewindowsafter

I don’t feel like it’s translating particularly well in photos, but the difference between the vinyl and the clapboard in real life is HUGE. And by huge, I mean subtly a million times better. The difference is really not that dramatic because the vinyl siding has the same exposure (the part of the board that shows) and is basically the same color, which makes it extra cool just how much better the real clapboard looks. The house looks so…SOLID now. Because vinyl is so hollow-looking I feel like it always makes houses look like they could just whither up and fall over, but the wood siding meeting up with trim pieces and stuff just looks super substantial and…right. Ahhhhh.

By the way, the clapboard was painted using Valspar Reserve exterior paint (flat) from Lowe’s, and the trim is Valspar Reserve exterior paint in semi-gloss. I had the siding paint color-matched to Benjamin Moore’s Simply White, which is a really nice off-white that’s bright but has definite yellow/greenish undertones that keep it from looking too stark. I considered going darker and more grey to create more contrast with the trim, but that kind of seemed like a decision that would serve before-and-after pictures better than it would really serve the house. The trim is off-the-shelf…I think it’s called Ultra White but naturally I can’t locate the can right now.

I love how those little windows turned out, seriously. They might look small but they’re really about as big as they could be without interrupting the rake frieze and still fitting in the room. They need more extensive restoration work (reglazing, a couple of panes replaced, some rotted areas epoxied) but in the meantime I just gave them both a liberal coating of Valspar’s Latex Enamel (semi-gloss) in off-the-shelf-black. I used the same paint on the door, too, and it’s awesome stuff! It’s VERY thick, dries quickly, and looks much like oil paint after it’s fully cured. I highly recommend it!

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The door threshold is the original one, which I LOVE and guarded with my life throughout this ordeal. It’s beautifully worn from foot traffic in the center, and is so beefy! It had some old paint on it that I didn’t want to totally annihilate with scraping and sanding, so I tried hitting it with some wood hardener to see what that would do. Unfortunately it’s turned this hazy white color so in the spring I’ll probably sand it down a little and do a proper polyurethane or waterlox or something to really protect it and bring out the natural tones of the wood. That wood hardener product seems pretty great but I’ve yet to find an application for it that hasn’t given me grief later on. Oh well.

I think that’s about it! I’m so happy with how this turned out. Now to just do THE ENTIRE REST OF THE HOUSE.

I’m going to be renovating this thing forever, right? OK, cool.

New Fence, OMG OMG OMG.

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One thing that has been on my hit list since the very first time I saw my house was the old chain-link fence surrounding most of my lot. It was busted up, broken down, super hideous, provided no privacy, made the street look like a prison—it had to get GONE. I DIY’d a little over 30 feet of new wood fencing in the front yard last summer, and one of my major goals for this summer was to do the rest of the fence to match! I have to say, though—more than anything, building that section of fencing taught me that I really didn’t want to build the remaining 200-ish feet myself. Fences are one of those things that are deceptively difficult—the labor part of hauling and digging and pouring bags of concrete and all that is pretty hard, of course, but even if you’re up for that it’s difficult to get all the posts and pickets even and level, deal with whatever slope the land might have, build and hang gates…you get the idea. I think it could have easily taken me all summer, been intensely miserable, still expensive (the materials cost alone would have been in the $2,300 range)…all the while running the risk of ending up with a pretty amateurish result. This was one for the pros.

So, I hired some from an exotic land called Lowe’s! Lowe’s has a great installation service department for all sorts of things—from simple stuff like hanging blinds and installing a toilet to complex jobs like building decks, redoing roofing, installing HVAC systems…and fencing! The process goes like this: the representative from the local store comes out and takes measurements, evaluates the project, and provides a quote. I got my quote on the spot—just under $5,000, in case you’re curious. That’s actually a little less than I expected to spend here—it’s a ton of yard!

After deciding to move forward, I asked to meet with the contractor beforehand both times to go over everything step-by-step and make sure he understood my concerns, noted any particular challenges and custom requests. They were very accommodating—the Lowe’s rep came out with the contractor and they gave me lots of time to fret about stuff. Then they scheduled the job, delivered all the supplies the day before, and then the crew showed up early the next day with everything they needed to get to work!

I think there are a few major advantages to all of this. The quote turnaround is fast on this stuff—like, same day or the next day. Even more importantly, all of the pricing is regulated—for example, roofing has a fixed rate for each square of roofing (materials and labor), and fencing is calculated by linear foot. There isn’t any room for guesswork or some dude thinking you can afford a $10,000 fence because you’re wearing jeans that aren’t full of holes and covered in paint that day—it’s just a simple, standardized formula. Even if you don’t end up hiring them, I think getting a quote like that is really helpful just to give yourself a benchmark of around what you should expect to spend on a given project.

The contractors, by the way, aren’t exclusively Lowe’s contractors—instead, Lowe’s finds great local contractors to team up with, so the people performing the work have their own companies, years of experience, and do a mix of Lowe’s jobs and things they’ve been hired for privately outside of their arrangement with Lowe’s. I guess I always assumed doing a job like this through a big box store would get me a big-box contractor, which to me would seem like kind of a gamble, but that’s not the case. The advantage is that Lowe’s provides guarantees and warranties on the work and are very careful about installing to the manufacturer recommendations so that your warranty on materials doesn’t get voided. If they under-order supplies for whatever reason, there’s no charge for the extra supplies needed to finish the job, and if they over-order by accident, you get a refund for the excess materials and associated labor costs. Nice!

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ANYWAY, shall we recall the Asphalt & Chain-Link Special that was my backyard upon moving into the house? Man. I give myself a hard time about the backyard still looking pretty rough and not getting a ton of attention until now, but it’s actually come a long way! All the asphalt got hauled out last summer—which was a big, expensive project with lasting ramifications to the overall drainage and grading to the yard, which I’m now trying to correct—but I don’t regret it for a minute!

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When thinking about the backyard, the fence kind of seemed like it HAD to be the next step. The chain-link was unsightly, yes, but it was also a security issue for the dogs and knowing that it needed to be replaced ASAP kind of stalled much else from happening. I didn’t want to plant anything or try to put any real effort into the landscaping since I knew it would all get trampled and messed up with the fence replacement—anyway, just like getting the asphalt out, getting the new fence up would kind of complete the fundamental changes to the yard and allow the real progress to begin. It only took two years! Ha.

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Demo actually started with my neighbor Nancy’s old, rotted fence, which I agreed to just go ahead and do for her. If you’re doing a new fence, it’s definitely worth it to discuss your plans with any neighbors that you share a side with (especially if you might be able to split the cost!). Nancy and I agreed that it was stupid to have two separate fences (that little space between them was a mess of creepers and stuff and was impossible for either of us to maintain), and so we discussed exactly what both of us wanted out of the new fence and all that—she was so great and flexible and even told me I should have the “good” side facing my backyard instead of hers! So sweet. Doing that seemed kind of shitty but the offer was so kind!

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The Lowe’s contractor gave me the option of having the crew demo out the old fence, but I think demo was $5 per linear foot (I don’t know if prices vary on this stuff depending on where you are), so at 200 feet of fencing that would have tacked about $1,000 onto the price. The nice thing about the old fence was that demo was pretty easy—a few snips with some bolt cutters, rolling up the chain-link into manageable rolls, disassembling the gates and stuff…it took a couple days and three runs to the scrap yard and the fence was more or less gone! Only 4 of the many posts were actually held in with concrete, so that made things significantly easier. I think I made back all of about $150 in scrap metal, too, because I’m fancy like that.

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BOOM, there she is! Lowe’s delivered all the supplies the day before the install, as promised, which was so exciting! Delivery was super fast and painless—they just neatly left everything in the yard where I told them to.

By the way, the fence that I built was the same picket style (“dog-ear”), but mine is made of cedar and this is pressure-treated lumber. Cedar was an option, too, but PT was a bit less expensive and the Lowe’s salesperson said it would last longer. Since it’s all getting stained black anyway, I figured it didn’t matter much either way.

The other major difference is that my fence was made of pre-assembled panels, and this one was built all on-site! The panels have their pros and cons but ultimately the new fence seems sturdier and more custom than my attempt. The horizontal rails that the pickets get nailed into are 2x3s on the panels, but they used 2x4s on the new fence. Does anyone care about this level of minutia? The point is that the new fence is sturdier and will probably last longer than what I cobbled together, and makes me doubly glad I hired this one out.

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The night before the install, I had all manner of crazy nightmares. I dreamt that the crew thought they were supposed to demo all the fencing, so they hauled away my original cast iron fence in the front to the dump while I was distracted with something. I also dreamt that there was a misunderstanding and instead of a 6 foot fence, I got a 12-foot fence with barbed wire all along the top, which sort of defeated the purpose of trying to beautify the street a bit. You could say I have some trust and control issues.

I’m not really sure what I was expecting from the crew, but I kind of assumed they’d just move super fast, want to get in and get out, and maybe not be the most attentive to detail. I accepted that this was maybe the price of not DIY-ing, and that it was OK…at this point I just REALLY wanted a fence and as long as it looked OK and was sturdy and secure, I’d be fine with it.

WELL. I’m a jerk. The crew was so great. They let me change my mind about a couple of things after the install had started, which involved them having to pull and re-set a couple of posts, and they were just super friendly and accommodating throughout.

They made REALLY good time, too, but they were also so super attentive to detail that I kept having to stop myself from telling them to chill out! It was super weird that they seemed to care more about how my fence turned out than I did, but I’m pretty sure they did.

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Setting all of the posts took most of the first day. They made sure each one was level and square and all that. They used a manual post hole digger to dig all of the holes (I assumed they’d use one of those huge augers, but nope!) and finished each one off with an 80-pound bag of Quikrete.

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One thing that surprised me was that they didn’t use any water for the concrete—they said that after 20+ years of doing this, they could confidently assure me that the concrete would suck in moisture from the soil and rain and stuff and be totally solid in about a week. They offered to use water if it would make me feel better, but I figured they knew what they were doing and I should just back off and let them do their jobs. They were totally right, by the way…the fence had a little flex for the first few days but now it’s solid as a rock!

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Posts! Posts! Posts! I’m sure this is not that exciting for anyone except me, but look at those guys! Perfection.

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Oh hey, foxy fence guy. Don’t mind me.

After the posts were set, it was time to install the horizontal rails! These are pressure-treated 2x4s. Typically these get screwed to the front of the posts, but I think suspending them between posts looks so much nicer and more custom once the pickets are up. I was really worried that they wouldn’t be able/willing to accommodate this little detail, but the contractor didn’t bat an eye when I asked. Instead of using metal L-brackets like I did last summer, they just used long exterior decking screws driven in at an angle to affix the rails to the posts. Why didn’t I think of that? I feel stupid.

Things were looking a little wonky at this stage because they were very careful about following the overall slope of the yard—it looks kind of like a mistake but it isn’t. The horizontal rails won’t be level because of this, but you only see them from the inside of the yard and that’s kind of just how it is. The pickets all look level and awesome from the outside, so no complaints! I think the black stain will help sort of hide the unevenness from the inside, anyway. As the rails were going up, the posts got re-adjusted and checked again so everything was right. If some of the posts had to go down a little bit to get the angles right, the guys just gave them a few hard hits to the top with a small sledgehammer. Good job, dudes!

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Pickets! The crew pulled pickets for each section of fencing and leaned them against the rails to keep everything moving efficiently. I thought the pickets would go up really really fast, but they really took their time on these, too. Serious business.

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I’d say each individual picket took almost a minute to place. There was lots and lots of checking to make sure they were level and everything was just right.

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Then there was more checking…and more checking…

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After all the checking and double-checking and triple-checking, the pickets got nailed up! They used cordless nail guns for this. Pew, pew!

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Some pickets got scrapped for having large knots or even just little splits, which I guess would probably grow over time. I just can’t say enough how impressed I am with the level of detail. They left me the leftover pickets in case I wanted to use them for anything, which was pretty cool. They also offered to haul them away, for the record, but I figured I might need them for something.

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See that panel on the right, where there’s a skinny little piece missing? I thought that was pretty smart—instead of ending a section on a short piece, they ended on a full picket and then shaved one down for the second-to-last picket. Your eye doesn’t notice it nearly as much as if they’d ended on the run on a little picket! Clever, clever.

So day 2 ended and they didn’t quite finish, which they expected to. 200 feet of fencing including 2 walk gates and a 10-foot drive gate—totally understandable! This was a Friday so I assumed they’d come back Monday to finish the job, which wasn’t altogether ideal but totally normal and fine. Nope! Those dudes came back early Saturday morning, built and hung the gates and finished nailing up the remaining pickets.

The very last step was going around and sawing off the tops of all of the posts to be the same height. They did it with a big circular saw and just did such a nice job—this way, the fence appears totally level and all the post caps will sit at the same height and look uniform and perfect and stuff. By the way, the post caps aren’t included in the fence—there was an option to add them but they added to the labor cost, too, so I opted to just buy them myself and affix them after the fence is stained. That part is super easy so it didn’t seem worth paying for.

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CHECK. IT. OUT.

I MEAN SERIOUSLY, CHECK IT OUT. Ignore how insane the yard itself looks—I’m working on it. Let’s just focus on the fence. Here it is right after the dudes left.

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And here’s a wider shot from yesterday morning! I’ve been hard at work trying to level out the soil and figure out how much fill dirt I need to haul up in here, so that’s why the yard is basically a massive dustbowl. I’m so luck that my dogs couldn’t be less fussy and don’t care, but I can’t wait to get some landscaping happening because the amount of dirt and dust that gets tracked into the house is pretty appalling with the yard in this state.

ANYWAY!

I love my fence! My neighbors love my fence! I’m so excited about my fence. It changes EVERYTHING. Getting rid of all the chain link is such an immediate improvement, I can’t even really describe it. All of a sudden the house looks nice! I mean, as nice as it can given the various states of construction ad renovation and general craziness. Wait till you see the mudroom. (OH WAIT IT’S GONE)

Because the wood is pressure-treated, you’re supposed to let it dry out for a while before painting or staining, so that’s why it isn’t black yet. Did you think I wasn’t gonna do it? I’m totally going to do it. I’m planning to use the same Cabot brand opaque black stain that I used on my little section last year. Pressure-treated wood fades to a yucky green-ish grey over time, so doing something to it is sort of important, even if it looks kind of nice when it first goes up. I really recommend opaque stains over paints if you want a solid color look—paint will invariably peel and chip and look crappy after a few years and need a whole lot more maintenance.

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One area that feels particularly improved is the side of the garage that faces the street! I know that the wood in contrast with the black looks nice right now, but I think given how the wood will weather and in combo with the house, staining it is the best option long-term. One last minute (morning-of, really) decision was to set the whole fence back about 2 feet from the sidewalk, so the plan is to plant out the space between the fence and the sidewalk with all sorts of stuff to soften things a bit. The intention here is not to make the house look like a fortress, so I think getting some tall/climbing plants going will do a lot for making the whole thing feel friendly and pretty instead of big and overbearing and all that.

(And yes, the garage has exterior lights! I’ve been working a lot on the garage. They aren’t actually attached to power yet but that’s coming soon!)

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One thing to be aware of with pressure-treated lumber is that it takes several months for it to dry out. I didn’t want to post too quickly about the fence because I knew it would change a little as time went on and I wanted to reserve judgment until I felt like I had an accurate idea of how it would look long-term. These pickets were butted up right next to each other when the fence went up, but now that it’s been about six weeks, they’ve shrunk down somewhat and now there are little gaps between them. I’m TOTALLY fine with that—actually, I prefer it—but if you’re looking to have even more privacy, you probably want to let the wood dry out between delivery and install or use cedar, which will still expand and contract, but shouldn’t shrink permanently like this.

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The trash area behind the garage feels enormous, by the way. I need to figure out the best way to use it. The big gap under the gate is temporary—I’ll be bringing in some kind of paving solution so it’ll get built up with a few inches of paver base and then whatever’s on top. I have to start making decisions!

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Look, the new fence even makes Linus look fresh! Could that dog be any cuter? He’s such a little rascal.

Going from a 16′ drive gate down to a polite 10′ one is really a nice change, and the fact that it’s level and not broken all over the place is obviously a relief. Soil here also has to get built up somewhat to address the grading issues—I’m really happy that the guys understood this and installed the fence with the new soil level as a guide instead of how things are now. I have to move so much dirt, omg. Pls pray.

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The pickets of the new fence are slightly longer, weirdly, than the one that I did, so the guys even screwed an extra piece of 4×4 to the top of the last post to bring it up to the same height as the rest of the posts! I love that. Once it’s all stained, nobody will ever notice that little add-on, but it was so sweet that they did it.

So there it is! I’m thrilled with the fence and just so excited that I can move onto the next steps with the exterior of my house now. The dogs are loving their new-old yard—Mekko is so much more at ease without feeling like she has to patrol the perimeter all the time, and Linus can’t slip out anymore! I still never leave them in the yard unattended, but it’s still brought so much peace of mind. Everybody’s happy.

This post is sponsored by Lowe’s! None of this would have been possible without them, and I’m so beyond grateful. Thank you for supporting my sponsors! 

 

Black Garage!

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Ever since I got the idea in my head to paint my garage black, I haven’t really let go of it. As much as we know I love my black paint for all sorts of accent-y types of things, it’s not something I’d let loose on any and every house, but I have this whole vision for mine. It involves the following: since my house is Greek Revival (or, ya know, Greek Revival-ish), the only color that really feels right for the house itself is white, right? Maybe an off-white-ish-grey with a brighter white trim, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go. Once I sort of clean up the architecture on the back and side of the house (bye-bye, mudroom and hazardous “side porch” thingy!), the house is going to be so pretty. The garage and even the nice new wood fence are never going to be things I want to highlight, so I like the idea of blacking them out and letting the house and the garden really shine. Black can seem bold, and in some contexts it is, but I think here it’ll do a nice job of receding and letting the house do the visual heavy-lifting. IT’S GOING TO WORK, OK? OK then.

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Hot DAMN, look at that thing! I recently decided to find my house on Google Maps using the street view function, and evidently the last time the Google van rolled through Kingston was sometime before the house even went up for sale. After the previous owner of the house passed away, I knew the listing agent had stepped in to coordinate a little work on the house (repainting the wood trim, removing and remediating the oil tanks in the yard), and she’d mentioned at some point that they’d done some work on the garage during this time, but I never realized how bad it was. Yikes! Lookin’ pretty rough there, garage.

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The garage isn’t original to the house, but it is quite old—I’d guess around the turn of the century, maybe a bit later. It’s seen some alterations over the years: the main door is much newer and probably replaced two side-by-side hinged carriage doors, there used to be another large window on the opposite side and two small windows on the back, one of which appears to have gotten poached for the laundry room. Anyway, I don’t really have a problem with continuing to alter it…some old houses come with some pretty magnificent garages/carriage houses that demand more careful preservation, but this isn’t really one of them. It can only go up from here, right?

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Luckily by the time I bought the house, the garage was looking a little less horrific. The whole thing had been repainted, a brand new roof had been put on, and it was generally OK-looking. Still nothing gorgeous, but fine.

I’ve more or less left the garage alone until recently, mainly focusing on just cleaning up the overgrowth around it and using the inside as a glorified garbage dump. Cute, right? It’s never held a car as long as I’ve owned the house. Not once. I generally kind of forget that’s even a potential option, which is totally ridiculous.

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More recently, the garage has looked a little something more like this, kind of. Overgrowth more under control, asphalt removed, weird half-foundation behind the garage removed (evidently there was a garage expansion plan that never quite materialized, oof), and more or less a blank slate!

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To jog your memory, here’s kind of the concept for how this area will look/function by the end of the week. KIDDING. But hopefully by the end of the summer? I’m trying here, folks. The plan is to remove the little window and the patch where there used to be another window and throw some french doors on the back of this bad boy to make storage and whatnot easier and, hopefully, the whole construction a little more attractive. I have high hopes. Since the garage isn’t spectacularly weather-tight or insulated or anything like that, I feel fine with going ahead and using french doors that are really intended for indoors (probably these) which are way cheaper than exterior doors. They’ll be painted black too…I’m lazy with SketchUp so use your imagination to fill in that gaping hole.

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ANYWAY. A few weeks ago, I dove into painting this mo’fo’! As usual, I did not take my own advice and did not get any samples—I just went with my old faithful Benjamin Moore, Onyx! Then I went with my other new-ish old faithful and had it color-matched at Lowe’s to their Valspar Reserve line of exterior paint and primer in one, which is magic stuff, for real. I’ve used the interior paint in my dining and living rooms (still looks awesome, FYI) and the exterior on Bluestone Cottage, and it’s been great! It’s about $45/gallon, which I think is totally reasonable for the quality compared to other brands.

My pals at Lowe’s generously stepped in to save my scrawny ass and sponsor a bunch of backyard projects for me this summer (thanks, guys!), so the paint was on them this time around, but otherwise the 5-gallon bucket would have run me about $215. Having used the paint before I knew more or less what to expect out of it, but I was still pretty amazed by the coverage! I considered using a tinted primer for the first coat and then two coats of paint, but decided to see how the paint performed on its own, and I’m glad I did! Usually painting super dark over super light (or vice-versa) means 3-5 coats of paint, but the coverage just with the first coat was incredible! Two coats had things looking pretty great, and then it’s just been touch-ups here and there to really get in all the nooks and crannies.

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As you might be able to tell, I did not go crazy with prep. When I restore the clapboard on the house I’ll probably aim to strip it down to bare wood (or close to it) before repainting, but there was no way I was about to put that much work into the garage. Instead, I went around on my ladder and used a scraper to flake off anything that was chipping or peeling (onto tarps to keep any possible lead-containing chips off the ground), and then gave the whole thing a good cleaning. For that part, I used a garden sprayer filled with TSP-substitute (I bought the powdered version and just mixed it with warm water) to clean off any dirt/grime/whatever that could interfere with good adhesion. I used reusable microfiber cloths, which I find are best for trapping all the crap when you’re cleaning by hand. The cleaning is a little slow and boring but super worth it!

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EEEEP! Painting that first wall was SO EXCITING that it probably took me twice as long as it needed to because I kept going across the street to see how it looked. Which admittedly is kind of insane and terrible in process, but getting a glimpse of how it would look completed was totally thrilling.

This was the stage during which I received some rave reviews from the neighbors, which included “hey, it’s your house” and “it’s definitely very…you” and “you should have painted it rainbow.” Aw, shucks.

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I think I took this photo after the second coat but before touch-ups, but here we go! Almost done! I LOVE it. Almost. I almost love it. I will love it. This is going to be one of those things that is going to look a little kooky and wrong until more of this exterior plan starts to come together—removing that chain-link fence is going to be HUGE HUGE HUGE, and I desperately need to do something about the windows on the garage door. That tattered, water-stained fabric curtain is not helping this cause! I love the idea of replacing the glass with a textured wire-mesh-reinforced glass, but that stuff is spendy and I don’t want to throw a lot of cash at this thing right now, so that might be a “someday” dream. I’ve been thinking about reviving ye olde cornstarch trick and just pasting some fabric up on that, at least for now, so we’ll see.

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Sorry about the crappy iPhone pics (I’ll post better ones when the fence goes in!), but I’m super into the way the black-on-black looks on this garage. I used flat paint, which makes me kind of like the scale-y texture of the old clapboards? It has a lot of character but it’s sort of subtle. I’m into it.

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ANYWAY, I do want to give the garage a little bit of bling, ya know? I need to redo the garage’s electric anyway, so I’ve been thinking about adding a larger light on the street side (between the circular window and the garage door) and two smaller sconces on either side of the french doors on the back. Sounds good, right? The street that the garage is on is a very small cross-street that gets basically NO light at night (which might sound nice but is kind of a safety hazard), so I think adding something to the garage will help out the street a little bit too. I’ll probably put that one on a timer switch and the two sconces on a regular switch, and LED bulbs in everything to keep them from being energy-sucks. If the bulb is going to be exposed, I’m totally trying those new LED Edison-style bulbs, which are so hokey that I feel my life is incomplete without them.

So. You know me, all hot 4 warm metallics. A copper light would look so fly on the black, especially as it patinas over time, right? Above are some of my favorites I’ve been tossing around—bigger guys for the front, smaller sconces for the back. Hmmmm.

1. Progress Lighting Brookside Copper Outdoor Wall Light, Lowe’s, $192.

2. The Maritime Copper Gooseneck Light (raw copper), Barnlight Electric, $379.

3. Starboard with Shade Sconce—Mini (weathered zinc), Restoration Hardware, on sale for $190.

4. Harbor Sconce—Large (weathered zinc), Restoration Hardware, on sale for $110.

5. Carson Straight Arm Wall Mount, Rejuvenation, $695. (good god, though, look at that thing!)

6. Avalon Indoor/Outdoor Sconce (black), Pottery Barn, on sale for $559/set of two.

7. The Bowie Copper Wall Sconce, Barnlight Electric, $200

This post is in partnership with my friends at Lowe’sThank you for supporting my sponsors!

 

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