All posts tagged: Bathroom Glow-Up 2019

Bathroom Update! OH HEY, FLOORS!

If you were unfortunate enough to catch my last post, you will be relieved to know that I started work on my bathroom! Even though I keep talking about this as a “small” renovation, a “light refresh,” a “quick and cheap fix,” I’m not sure this room has any truly quick fixes. You’ve seen it. It’s rough. As a result, the entire house has been thrown into total chaos and immediate disarray. This phenomenon seems to happen every time, and each time I regard it with a renewed sense of wonder. It doesn’t seem like this task would require every tool and supply I’ve ever owned, and yet…all the DIY paraphernalia now scattered around the upstairs begs to differ.

I think the lesson broadly might be that bathrooms are no joke, especially if you only have one. They just involve more than, say, a bedroom, plus they’re small which makes the work awkward and uncomfortable. When you’re working on a living space, it’s easy enough to just avoid living in that space until the work is done…but it is not easy to avoid going to the bathroom. I, for one, typically have to do it several times a day. Which is why I’m definitely glad I’m not gutting this bathroom right now, and also already cannot wait for this to be over. Ha!

GOOD. BYE. FORMICA. You have served valiantly as the shower surround but it is time for you to depart. I got lots and lots of helpful suggestions for the bathroom after my last post (thank you!!! y’all are smart.), which ranged from “try to work with the Formica!” to “OMG KILL IT WITH FIRE,” and I fell more into that latter camp. It was barely clinging to the walls so taking it down was a no-brainer.

Next, I had to get rid of that dumb wall at the end of the tub. “Had to” is strong wording—I wanted to. REALLY wanted to. If the bathroom were a littttttttle bit wider, it probably would have made more sense to keep, but that space it created was just so narrow and deep and awkward and dark and skeevy, I just wanted it gone. The wall was built whenever this tub was put in, and the side facing into the shower was made up of scraps of plywood which were then skim-coated in joint compound and then covered in Formica. Fancy!

IS IT BEAUTIFUL YET? Yikes. The plaster walls under the Formica are luckily in very good condition, all things considered.

By the way, while we’re taking in this spa-like view, several of you suggested/insisted on changing the swing of the door, and you know what? You’re absolutely right! I even noted the awkward swing of the door 6 years ago when first writing about this bathroom, but completely forgot it bothered me over the course of the intervening years. It’s funny how you just get used to things. But now that it’s been brought to my attention again, it’s all I can think about…add it to the list.

WELL, WELL, WELL, WHAT HAVE WE HERE? Removing the wall at the end of the tub allowed me to see under the tub for the first time, and I saw wood floors! And not, like, wide and gappy and soft wood subfloors that I can see from below, but nice finished hardwood. It also allowed me to see that these hardwood floors were residing under only one thin layer of plywood subfloor and vinyl tile, not the several layers of mayhem I suspected I’d find. INTERESTING.

So, I had PLANNED to just peel up the existing vinyl tiles, do whatever I needed to do to prep the plywood subfloors, and put down new peel-and-stick vinyl tiles. I’d found these Stainmaster black “obsidian” large-scale hex tiles at Lowe’s, which seemed like they’d be fast and affordable at about $2/square foot, and they’re cute! It’s nice to see something different than 12″x12″ vinyl—AND, these are GROUTABLE? What is this sorcery? The product shots in finished rooms look pretty great and I’d bought 5 boxes and was prepared and weirdly stoked to go for it.

Upon seeing the wood floors…I was still prepared to go for it? A glimpse of hardwood is not the same as seeing the whole room of hardwood, and someone probably covered them up for reason, like rot, that I don’t want to face. Plus, removing the plywood subfloor would entail temporarily removing that sink—or somehow just its legs, which rest on the floor—a prospect that strikes complete and utter fear into my heart.

I’m not sure I can stress this last point enough. The sink is super beautiful and old and theoretically valuable and fragile and I cannot and will not risk it for the purposes of this renovation. I don’t even really understand how it’s mounted, particularly the backsplash piece which I think might be mortared to the wall like a big tile. Someday, I will have to face this, I suppose. Today? Hell no. This is also why I didn’t even really consider tiling the floor with ceramic or porcelain tile because that would add thickness to the floor and necessitate removing and re-mounting the sink a little higher. There is seriously nothing in this world I would rather do less than fuck with that sink.

In addition to the sink, there’s also a radiator in the room and that presents kind of the same problem. It would be nice if radiators were easy to remove and put back on a whim, but it’s a pain and I wanted to avoid that as well.

So now I am not even one full day into this DIY event and at a crossroads that is causing IMMEASURABLE stress. I am not at all dramatic, why do you ask?

I changed course and spray-painted the radiator while I debated my options. I cleaned it well and then used Rust-Oleum’s High Heat Engine Enamel in gloss. Looking slick, radiator!

Don’t ask me how; I couldn’t tell you. But I got the floor out. Lots of careful cutting with my handy Dremel MultiMax MM50 to get the subfloor into pieces small enough to shimmy out from underneath the legs, which can be carefully maneuvered this way and that without the whole thing crashing down. It was intense. But everyone survived, most importantly the sink.

ANYWAY, floors!! For the most part, the floors were in pretty great shape. There was a little water damage near the toilet and a big patch where plumbing had been run behind the sink, but overall…I’ve seen much worse!

Then I started sanding them, and…what’s this?! The floors in my house are all yellow pine or fir—both very common wood types for flooring here—but I think these are…maple?! Huh! I almost never see maple floors in this region. Interesting!

By the way, even though I just refinished that little floor in my closet, I WAY underestimated the amount of sanding here. Maple is so much harder than pine. I found that if I hand-scraped the old finish (shellac, I think?) before sanding, it went a little faster and saved me from having to replace the sanding pads every 5 seconds, but it was still slow and kind of awful to do with just a little orbital sander.

I took up the old patch behind the sink, which I think was made of shipping pallets? Super rough and uneven wood; not worth saving.

I didn’t have any maple, but I did have boards from the yellow pine patch that I pulled out of the living room when I installed the faux fireplace several years ago in there! The boards are the same width as the maple, and this floor is so full of “character” anyway that a conspicuous patch job doesn’t really bother me. I actually think it’s kind of charming?

So do you, admit it.

NOT BAD, RIGHT? I loved the light tone of the unfinished maple, so I used some leftover Bona NaturalSeal before applying poly. The NaturalSeal has a little bit of white pigment in it, which lets the wood maintain an unfinished look rather than darkening with polyurethane. Then I followed up with two coats of Bona Traffic HD in Satin, which I also had on hand in the basement.

Oh HELLO, floors! I am very pleased. I know that wood floors aren’t everyone’s ideal for a bathroom, but I am more than happy to have these in here. Plus, aside from some sanding pads, they were free! I’m sure I will still have no problem spending my $1,000 budget, but being able to return the vinyl floor tile definitely helps.

A couple more random and possibly interesting things about the bathroom! I didn’t notice that it wasn’t showing up in photos, but the lower half of the walls in this bathroom are not smooth plaster, and they aren’t painted tile either—they’re Keene’s cement! Keene’s cement is a very hard and durable plaster developed in 1838 that was often used in public spaces and other areas needing a hard-wearing surface. I think it maintained popularity until about the 1920s or so, but it’s still in production! My Keene’s cement looks like 6×6 tiles in a running bond pattern. A lot of you guys recommended simple subway tile or something similar for the shower surround—which would be perfect and really affordable—but I got super hung up on having real tile right up next to this more subtle fake tile walls. Maybe that’s dumb? It just seemed…not right. I also got concerned that the toilet, sink, and tub are all different shades of glazed white, and I’d regret adding yet another shade of glazed white. Maybe that’s also dumb? Regardless, I’m taking the opportunity to do something different and kind of unlike me and I think I’m into it.

Anyway! Also of note in that image above: that wall was covered in Formica, so I’d never seen what was hiding underneath—which looks distinctly like years of someone painting around a radiator! A tall and narrow radiator tucked into this corner rather than this lower/longer one that’s here now must have been nice. I wonder what happened to it. It’s cool to see the original beige-y paint on that Keene’s cement, though. Dare I say, I like it?

Also, I took down the mirror to get to work on the walls! The backing is embossed with this “The Brasscrafters” logo, which appears to have gotten its start in 1899. They made all the bathroom things: mirrors, soap dishes, shelves, towel rods, hooks, toilet paper holders, and so on—I really enjoyed scrolling through this catalog from the 20s and finding my mirror!

The clips that hold the mirror backing into place dates the patent at 1904, although it looks like these mirrors were in production for a few decades so I’m not sure when mine was actually made/installed.

I don’t see any manufacturer stamp on the sink itself, but a commenter named Margaret pointed out that it sure looks a helluva lot like a JL Mott sink, which some googling confirmed. Look at this one, which they say was made in 1892! Cool cool.

The shelf brackets are stamped “S. Sternau & Co Brooklyn NY,” which was started in 1893 and later became Sterno, the brand name that’s synonymous with their signature product, canned heat!

FUN TIMES WITH HISTORY. Nerd.

I gotta get back to my bathroom now. GO GO GO.

I Have Got to Do Something About This Bathroom.

Would you like to know something insane? OK I’LL TELL YOU. Last Friday was the anniversary of the closing on my house. 3 whole years!!!!

Just kidding, it’s 4 years.

Actually wait, 5 years.

Fuck. It’s 6 years. I have some feelings about it, as you might expect.

The very first time I came to Kingston, it was for a weekend with friends. We stayed in an Airbnb only a few blocks from the house I’d later go on to buy. Some sleuthing revealed that the owners (now friends of mine—something that tends to happen when you move to a place like this!) were a couple of young guys who had bought the house less than a year prior to our stay. The house was very nice, and every part of it had seemingly received some level of attention to prepare it for comfortable occupancy. Walls had been skimmed and painted, furniture and window treatments installed, and the oak floors refinished to a pleasant shade of medium brown.

So it’s with some cringing embarrassment that I’ll now admit to feeling like the renovation was nice enough, but…could have been better. Freshly painted acoustic tiles still covered some original plaster ceilings, new electrical work had been run in exposed plastic channels rather than behind walls and ceilings, and inexpensive floating laminate flooring hid what was likely layers of old flooring in the kitchen. The bathrooms had been updated with a sheet of linoleum flooring, that unconvincing variety meant to look like natural stone, and the chipped and broken 1930s wall tiles had been painted a deep navy—including the mastic that was revealed when some of them had fully detached—rather than restored or replaced. All of this struck me as kind of a bummer. It was all fine but also not what I would have done. I held this belief with all the authority of somebody whose restoration experience started and ended with spending two years fixing up a 600 square foot Brooklyn apartment. If I’d only had a house, I could show these people how it was really done. Thoroughly. Lovingly. Do it right or don’t do it at all.

Sitting here today, I wish I could go back and slap that judge-y expression right off my dumb fucking face. What these owners had done was not only practical but smart: in most cases they’d done just enough to make the house cozy and clean, which in turn allowed them to begin renting it, which in turn augmented their income, which in turn allowed them to save for the renovations they’d complete down the line. I just hadn’t given them the benefit of the doubt that they had further plans beyond what I could see. Eventually they put in a very nice brand new kitchen. They renovated the bathrooms in a classic and elegant style befitting of a Victorian home. Having a “good enough” kind of solution in the interim took the pressure off to do it all at once, and allowed them to do something within mere months that I have not been able to comfortably do for six years: to stop apologizing. To host overnight guests and dinner parties. To have the flexibility to put the renovation on hold because everything is already fine. 

To be fair: comparing your renovation to your perception of someone else’s is generally unhelpful. All houses are different. While their bathroom tiles on the first floor had been damaged from 80 years of use, mine had been ripped from the wall because they were spattered with human remains. While their exterior work mostly entailed repainting and gardening, mine has involved tearing down multiple additions and reimagining entire elevations. It’s been difficult—to say the least—to prioritize all the many moving parts of renovating this house, and I’m positive I’ve erred from time to time in that agenda-setting. I’m sure I will continue to, because it’s hard. Like everyone else, I’m at the mercy of time and money and weather and a million other challenges big and small with a project of this scope.

And yet: SIX. YEARS. And it’s hard to imagine there aren’t at least another six ahead of me, and probably six more after that. It’s a slog. A satisfying, gratifying, at times exciting, sometimes fun, difficult-to-explain, always educational, and frequently humbling slog. Nothing in my house brings this into sharper relief than my bathroom.

Yes, I have a bathroom. I showed it to you once, almost 6 years ago, when it looked like this. In preparation to sell, obviously someone had done some rushed repair work on the walls and put in a new drywall ceiling, which was slowly being ruined by the still-leaking roof above. Given that the downstairs bathroom was basically a crime scene, this one didn’t seem so bad. As is my habit, I was blinded by a few things.

FOR EXAMPLE, THIS SINK. I mean. There were so many parts of this house that I loved at first sight, but this sink was high on that list. The idea that someone else might buy the house and rip it out made me even more determined to make sure it was mine. Sometimes when people are over I like to joke that I hope the dump will accept it when I get around to replacing it, just to watch the reaction. It’s endlessly fun to me and only me.

Above the sink is this sweet little glass shelf and this beautiful mirror. Of course I can’t be sure, but I’d guess that the sink/shelf/mirror combo hasn’t changed since the bathroom was first installed around 1890.

Where did the 1890 date come from? This hurts, you guys. This bathroom had its original toilet when I bought the house. Most toilet tank lids have a manufacturing date stamped on the underside, and I’m pretty sure this one said 1890. The plumbing wasn’t turned on until a few hours before we had to start living here, so we didn’t realize that none of it really worked—the waste line running from this bathroom to the basement had an impressive crack all the way down it, both toilets in the house leaked…I don’t know, it was a bad scene that we needed to deal with ASAP. At the time, I was precious about plenty of things (see: sink) but not an old toilet—old toilets are finicky and inefficient and a little gross, right?!

DAMNIT, DANIEL. Let’s pretend that the base and the tank were irreparably cracked or something, which might actually be true. But what I absolutely know is true is that I went out and bought a new toilet—a totally basic and inexpensive Kohler—and oversaw plumbers as they removed this one. Which, after lots of grunting and moaning and jostling, ended with one of the guys taking a SLEDGHAMMER to the base to get it out. It was stuck down to that little painted platform (probably installed to cover some rotted flooring—I don’t want to know) with some crazy adhesive putty stuff and they just could not get it to budge.

Hindsight, man. It hurts sometimes. I’m not trying to tell you how to run your life (lol yes I am), but if you have an original toilet…toilets haven’t changed that much since their inception, except sadly in the way they look, and can usually be retrofitted with new parts to bring them back into perfect working order. Pretty much without exception, toilets made before the 1950s are SO pretty, and I really don’t quite understand why nobody is reproducing these elegant old designs. There are decent options I’m aware of for historic renovations—as in, they might fit in more seamlessly than something decidedly modern—but they really don’t look like any actual old toilet I’ve seen. Someone ought to do something about this issue of grave social concern.

Enough about the toilet. I can’t think about it anymore. The nice old shitter with the wall-mounted tank is long gone and that’s that. Keep an eye out for very old toilets because I want to put one back someday.

Which brings us to the tub! This is very obviously not the original tub. It’s probably from the 1960s? But it is enameled cast iron and 100% decent. Never in a million years would I pick it for this bathroom, but there’s nothing wrong with it.

Except for the hot and cold valves, which both leak like crazy when they’re on. I have done exactly nothing to try to identify the source of the leak or improve the situation, in spite of the wild temperature fluctuations that occur during most showers, or the way you have to avoid standing in a certain spot lest the leak from the hot valve scald your delicate ankles.

Also, note the shower surround. That is not tile. That is certainly not a slab. That is…Formica!! In fact it’s the exact same Formica that clad the first floor kitchen’s countertops when I moved in.

I don’t think this has ever been what Formica is for, so on one hand it’s held up impressively well—by which I mean, it’s still clinging to the wall. On the other hand, it’s fucking disgusting and slathered in generous layers of caulk and a light spattering of mold and…sigh, I am a trash human.

The floor, by the way, is a vinyl tile that looks kind of like terrazzo. I am a life-long terrazzo fanatic, and there’s actually something I kind of like about the floor except that it’s in this bathroom. The colors are so aggressively unpleasant and the tiles are lifting off the plywood subfloor and a couple of them have broken. CHIC!

And so. After 6 years of living, the bathroom looks like this. It’s funny—I recently told a houseguest with absolute certainty that the walls have always been exactly as peel-y as they appear in this photo, but looking back I can see that isn’t true. Which really speaks to the extent to which I’ve truly turned a blind eye to this room, to the point that I didn’t notice that it was, evidently, actively degrading around me.

Very small efforts have been made. Very small things have happened by necessity. Note how there is some shelving crammed in there between the tub and the wall. A colorful shower curtain is trying and failing very hard to make things mildly cheerful. I hung a couple hooks for towels.

What is happening in this image? Well. There’s a crumpled fabric bin thing on top of the toilet tank to hold excess stuff because there’s not enough storage in here. That little print next to the shelf is concealing some large holes I made almost 6 years ago, when I was trying to install an outlet and decided a 1″ spade bit was a good choice for test-drilling. First I ran into the cast iron vent pipe. Then I ran into the dead gas line for the original lighting. Undeterred, I then ran into a stud. All with this massive drill bit! I have learned some things, thank god.

The larger print “covers” a hilariously awkwardly placed hole where I did successfully install the outlet, only to remove it a couple of years later when the electric to this room got eliminated in the course of other work. That’s when I ran new electric but in exposed conduit this time, since I didn’t want to take out walls or ceilings. Since there’s no active electric currently in the old upstairs kitchen—the room behind that wall—I stuck a power strip through the hilariously awkward hole in the wall to allow me to power a few tools.

It’s called elegance, look it up.

The light over the sink is a Radar Sconce from Schoolhouse Electric, bequeathed to me by my mother who ordered it for her place but then couldn’t use it. It has got to be the worst-looking installation of what’s otherwise a nice light in history. I’m sorry, Schoolhouse. You make nice things and I don’t deserve them.

The window is nice. The top sash contains the only stained glass in the house, and the bottom sash is one big piece of glass rather than divided like all my other windows. I put a piece of vinyl window frosting over it for privacy.

Note that the formica continues around this side of the room on the lower half of the walls. I got this little cabinet from IKEA, which turns out to be cute but nearly worthless when it comes to storage.

SO ANYWAY. Now you have an intimate and detailed glimpse of the space where I have cleaned my body and wiped my butt for the past 6 years. I have unburdened myself and now you get to live with this very likely unwanted information. No matter how much I clean this bathroom, it always looks and feels dirty, and I’m truly mortified whenever someone other than myself needs to use it.

“You didn’t shower, right?” This is what I asked my friend Anna, the cleanest half-Swede and best caulk artist I know, recently over coffee after an overnight stay.

“Oh no,” she replied. “I’m afraid of your shower,” seeming to imply that she would have showered, had the conditions looked less like a staph infection waiting to happen. I cherish this moment because it was so perfectly honest. A polite stranger might lie about forgetting their shampoo or liking to shower at night, but a true friend gives you the straight dope. I love you, but you’re living like a wild animal. 

It’s hard to imagine that over the course of six years, never has this bathroom floated to the top of a priority list. You might be thinking why not just…and believe me, I have the same thought all the time. But if you’ll excuse some brief self-compassion, it really just hasn’t been a priority. As-is, it’s ugly as hell but it works. It successfully performs all the basic functions of a bathroom—whereas at various times the house has been without heat, hot water, a kitchen, a bedroom, various exterior walls…there’s just always been something that at least felt more pressing or essential.

At the same time, my hesitance to make any improvements to the bathroom has probably been informed by the kind of thinking I described at the beginning of this post: do it right or don’t do it at all. Whether or not the bathroom would eventually need a full renovation has never really been up for debate, so I have essentially been waiting for that full renovation and avoiding anything less. And I really do mean avoiding—I mean, LOOK at those walls. Don’t you want to just yank those peeling parts off?? Can you imagine the prolonged exercise in self-control of leaving it alone? Because I know myself well enough to know this: once I start, I will be powerless to stop. And then I have opened another can of worms when I’m already juggling the dozen cans of worms open in front of me. A small gesture like scraping the walls or re-caulking the tub will inevitably spiral, and it’s a dangerous and slippery slope into total chaos from there. And so: blinders, on.

The problem, of course, with putting this stuff off “until the big renovation” is finally, to me at least, evident: that big renovation is a long way off. Years, not months. And I just cannot anymore. The bathroom is gross and makes me feel bad, and unfortunately it will not improve on its own no matter how much I nag it. So I’m going to do…something.

I’m giving myself a week. A week to deal with the floors, the walls, the shitty plumbing, the lack of storage, the bad lighting, the formica shower surround…all of it. I am absolutely determined to keep all walls and ceilings intact—once the plaster goes, then so does the brick nogging, and then I’m dealing with potential structural issues (no evidence of this, but…ya know) and insulation and vapor barriers and cement board and then what the hell, let’s rip out the tub, and THAT IS NOT HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. I’m also giving myself a thousand dollars, by which I mean my corporate overlords at Lowe’s have agreed to provide exactly this sum in materials and I will gladly take it and very likely spend it all. It sounds like a lot of money but I’m sure it’ll go fast.

Just as I haven’t expended significant effort on fixing up the bathroom, I have not allowed myself to put significant thought into what I would do with it if I could! So…I dunno. Wish me luck? Tell me what to do? My current plan is no plan, so…tell me your thoughts.

And then your secrets.

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