All posts tagged: Lowe’s

Adding A Faux Fireplace: Bedroom Edition!

This post is in partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

Do you recall, when last we spoke, I had just finished overhauling my bedroom closet? WELL. There have been further developments.

Making the closet all fancy and functional made me really want to turn my attention back to some loose ends in the bedroom, including a long-standing plan to install a mantel on this wall you see before you. Is it a priority? Not at all. But I’m working on various other things right now, so chipping away at a small project like this at home helps me feel like things are still progressing while my attention is elsewhere, ya know?

Originally, there was a chimney behind that wall (now removed to make space for the laundry machines!), and a big vent-hole-shaped patch job on the upper part of the wall leads me to believe there was some kind of stove in here (coal, I think?) to heat the room in the winter. This was before the house was fitted for radiators, and to be honest I’m a little unclear about how this stuff was set up.

Anyway. See how the baseboard is patched in down there, to the right of the closet door? And it doesn’t really match?

Yeah. I also see that. I have seen it everyday for years. I wake up in the morning looking at that terrible patch job and drift off to sleep looking at it, too. I didn’t fix it back when I renovated the bedroom a few years ago, thinking I’ll do something about that. Someday. 

Also problematic: those two very awkward outlets I had the electrician add years ago. At the time, I thought this was the most natural spot to put a bed, and having outlets just behind the headboard for lamps and phone chargers makes a lot of sense…but now they just look stupid. This was also before I found out that outlets in the baseboards—where they were usually placed old houses when they were first retrofitted for electric—were still allowable. I love baseboard outlets!

If you have a little electrical know-how, moving an outlet from a wall and into a baseboard isn’t too challenging, especially if the wiring is coming up from below rather than down from above. In the process, I cut off the supply to the outlet on the left so it could be eliminated, traced the new box on the baseboard, and got to work cutting out the hole!

OK, so I have a new tool friend to introduce you to. She goes by Dremel Multi-Max MM50, and she’s great. I’ve mentioned before the importance of having an oscillating saw for all sorts of common renovation tasks (cutting clean lines in plaster/drywall, under a door casing to install new flooring, cutting out hardwood flooring to patch holes, cutting through lath, shaving foam insulation before installing walls…). I finally bought one 4-ish years ago, and it’s an indispensable part of my toolkit—right there with the drill and the hammer and the pry bar. Up until now I’ve been working with an older Porter Cable model that I’ve always liked, so when Lowe’s asked if I’d give this Dremel version a try for this project, I agreed to try it but told them that I liked my current one and, basically, this better be good.

It is good! Dremel nailed it. The Multi-Max MM50 comes with a bunch of blades and accessories to get you started and even a nifty little carrying bag, so at $129 it’s a great value for everything that comes in the box. Those accessories add up fast when you have to buy them all individually, and having them included is a nice way to try out a bunch of them beforehand—some will prove more useful than others depending on what you’re doing, and you may find that you just like certain ones better than others as a matter of personal preference. So it’s nice to have a sampling.

If you’ve used another oscillating saw, you’ll notice a couple things right away with the Multi-Max MM50: the compact angled head (helpful for tight spaces!) and the motor. As you can see in the first photo in this post, the tool curves up at the end, which really helps with getting the cut you need when you’re up against a flat surface like the floor. It’s also just more comfortable and ergonomic to hold, which ultimately makes it safer to use since you aren’t putting your hands in awkward positions to do what you need to do.

The major, major difference between this multi-tool and all the ones I’ve used in the past is that it’s so smoooooth. It can be hard to control oscillating saws because they tend to vibrate a lot and jump all over the place, which is incredibly annoying when you’re trying to make clean, precise cuts (and when aren’t you, really?). I often end up with little knicks around where I was trying to cut that have to be filled later. Not so with the Dremel Multi-Max MM50! It was so easy to control that I could take photos with one hand while using the tool with the other, ha! I used this thing during every phase of this project and it made the work easier and faster, but also kept me from having to lug ALL the tools out since this little guy does so many things on its own. That’s a big deal when you’re trying to renovate in the room you sleep in!

After cutting out my rectangle, I drilled a drywall screw partway into the part of the wood I was removing and used my hammer to pry it out. From there, it was just a matter of pulling the cables through, inserting them through the back of a remodel box, and installing the remodel box into the baseboard. Then I just had to hook up the outlet, flip the power back on, and recheck my work to make sure I didn’t screw anything up. Success!

With the outlet out of the way, I assembled my supplies.

Almost two years ago now, I was driving down the road and passed by this little number. My first thought, of course, was WHY OH WHY OH WHY WOULD YOU TEAR THAT OUT? You can see a glimpse of the house it came out of in the background, which I’ve actually been inside, but that’s a whole different story. It’s spectacular and needs a ton of work. It dates from around 1800, but the interior details are very similar to my house and…anyway. I scurried home, measured, and was delighted to discover that the space I had was 4′ across, and this mantel was…4′ across. SOLD.

Welcome to my home, salvaged mantel. Now join the madness in this Hoard Room of Doom and I will call you when your time has come.

Almost a year later, I came across this random slab of marble at a yard sale. $10! I think I posted about this acquisition to Instagram stories to see if anyone had thoughts on what I could do with it. It’s 4′ wide and 16″ deep and…eventually someone suggested using it as a hearth. I think I said it was too small or something before realizing it’s actually…perfect for this someday-bedroom-fireplace-project. SORRY, SOMEONE. YOU ARE A GENIUS. THANK YOU FOR HAVING MY BACK.

The last piece of the puzzle was what to do with the large central opening in the mantel—you know, like where the fire would be. Since this is just a 2×4 partition wall, I definitely don’t have the depth for an actual firebox (it didn’t exist here originally, anyway), but still wanted to create the illusion of one. Otherwise it would just be a mantel tacked to the wall with drywall in the center—which you see a lot, by the way, in instances where fireplaces have been bricked up and plastered over in favor of more modern heat systems, but it always just looks to me like something that wants to be un-done and restored.

As it happens, this was the hardest thing to source because the fireplace opening is only 28″ across, and most of these cast iron surrounds are in the 30″-32″ range. On top of that, I needed to find one with a summer cover! The summer cover is that removable intricate metal grate that would have concealed the firebox in the summer when it wasn’t in constant use. Sometimes you can mix and match and create a pair that fits together, but I got lucky and found this matched set at a salvage place in town. I paid $125 for it. If you don’t have a salvage place at your disposal, places like eBay, Etsy, and online architectural salvage places are good for these kinds of parts, too.

This is totally the kind of project that is going to be a little different for everyone with lots of head-scratching and problem-solving along the way. That’s OK! There are no stakes! It’s called play, people! Have fun with it. My idea of fun is assembling a rag-tag collection of salvaged stuff and trying to make it all work nicely together. If your idea of fun is designing and building your own mantel from scratch, go for it! I’m not the boss of you!!

I removed the patched in baseboard. Even though we’re dealing with separate pieces, the amount of caulk and paint (and masking tape, it turned out!) between the two means that just going at it with a pry bar could carry the risk of damaging the original baseboard, which I was trying to preserve! Switching to the wood/metal blade, I just zipped the Multi-Max up the seams to break any bonds, which ended up including some unexpected nails driven in at an angle that attached the patch to the original board. Had I tried to just pry it off, I probably would have split the original baseboard and been so sad.

With the baseboard patch removed, I put the mantel in place and traced the shape of the firebox, where I’d be cutting out the plaster. I needed the extra depth to recess the metal fireplace surround enough for it to look right.

Switching to the drywall and wood blade, I went about cutting out the section of plaster I wanted to remove. So clean! I’ve had electricians make a REAL mess of plaster walls trying to run new lines or install electrical boxes with a hammer and a prayer, and now I insist that they use an oscillating saw for clean, easily-patchable cuts—even if it means borrowing mine. I’m really fun to have on a job site, according to me.

I put the mantel back into place, securing it temporarily to the wall with one screw. I pretty much dry-fitted things over and over again until it all worked.

Naturally, the floor in this room is rather sloped! I needed the left side to be about 1/2″ higher to make the mantel level, which means the right side could be 1/2″ lower and produce the same result.

I actually needed a slightly angled cut that would follow the slope of the floor rather than a perfect 90 degree cut. It worked nicely to place a piece of 1/2″ stock on the floor, and trace a line where it hit all the way around the part I needed to remove, and then just cut it out with the Multi-Max. Does that make sense? I switched back to the wood blade and zipped through it. This was approximately 900 times easier and faster than finagling this thing onto a pair of sawhorses and trying to do it with a circular saw.

Speaking of easy and fast: one of the major differences with these tools I haven’t mentioned is the ease of switching from one attachment to another. My first one actually needed a little allen wrench to change out the attachments—I MEAN, CAN YOU IMAGINE? Total pain. So easy to lose. Never again. The Multi-Max MM50, though, doesn’t need any tools—you just turn that knob on the top and press the blue button in the middle, put on a new blade, and turn the knob back to tighten. Nice! In fairness, my Porter Cable’s tension design for changing attachments is even more fast and seamless than the Dremel’s, but all-around this is still the better tool because of the aforementioned compact angled head and lack of vibration.

With the mantel leveled off, I put the marble hearth in place! It actually looked pretty nice just sitting on top of the floor, but I knew making it flush with the hardwood would be a lot nicer to live with and just look more authentic. Luckily the marble is the exact thickness (about 3/4″) of the hardwood floor, so this was not difficult. I used painter’s tape to mark the edges, pushing the marble toward the wall enough so that the front would align with the existing seam between two boards.

Back to the wood and metal blade! I wasn’t sure if I’d run into any nails (I did!) so using this blade was a safe bet. Steady hand, patience, and a good tool!

A note on these blades: they do wear out, sometimes rather quickly depending on what you’re cutting. This old yellow pine is pretty dense, so I used one blade just on cutting out this flooring. In theory the tool can handle a lot, but for cuts much bigger than this I’d likely want to break out the circular saw and just use the multi-tool for the first and last few boards to extend the life of the multi-tool blades. Those wood/metal blades are about $17 a pop, so it’s something to think about! Of course, in some situations—cutting the bottom of a door casing to slip new flooring underneath, for instance—a multi-tool is pretty much your only option unless you want to use a manual flush-cut saw like it’s the 18th century.

With the cross-cuts made and the boards removed, I again used the Multi-Max to shave off the remaining tongue on the last board so the marble will sit right up to the wood without a big gap.

LOOKS LIKE PROGRESS RIGHT?! I can’t wait to refinish these floors.

I ended up removing the lath from the area behind the summer cover, too, and building this simple little plywood box to the depth of the wall and painting it black. Totally winging it at this point. Making it work. I promise it was all making sense in my head. Mostly. I changed course a few times on how I wanted to do things.

Finally, time for the part I’d been dreading all along: getting the mantel paint-ready! There was quite a bit of flaking paint, and even some weird textured paint or old adhesive or something on the top, so I switched to a flexible scraper blade to try to address it!

To be honest with you, I’m not sure under what circumstances this blade would be more effective or preferable to manual scraping. It didn’t work well for me. I switched to the rigid scraper blade, but that might have been worse…too little pressure and it didn’t really do anything, too much pressure and it would gauge the wood. Maybe I’m missing something? I’m not sure. Scraping paint is a generally sucky task so I had hoped this would make it easier/faster, but I ended up just spending the hour and a half manually scraping and called it a day. Mask, on!

When I strip paint, generally, I don’t worry too much about going down to bare wood—for me it’s more about promoting good adhesion than making the piece look brand new when it’s repainted. Maybe it’s the years of living in NYC, but I think a little paint build-up on woodwork is nice.

With the mantel in place and secured with long screws into the studs in a few places, the last thing to do was remove the little section of baseboard to the left of the mantel. Ha! I was off by an inch. You’ll notice also that the hearth stone is about 1/2″ too long, but it’s not noticeable once the baseboard is patched.

This is why you NEVER throw away original trim! When you’re dealing with such limited quantity, even very small scraps can be worth saving for exactly this kind of thing. This piece came out of the bedroom when I put in the new window! Back from whence it came.

On the back of the metal surround, there are little holes that would have originally held these long metal hooks to keep the thing in place, but those are long gone. I just used a little picture frame wire, leaving that little hoop at the end for a drywall screw to secure it to that black plywood frame.

Like I said. You’ll figure it out. Trust yourself.

This wall is REALLY uneven. Back when I renovated this room, I definitely recall thinking that when I got around to the mantel project, I’d just demo the plaster altogether. Most of the original plaster in my house is in great shape, but the years have not been kind to this wall. But it seems to be generally stable from Round 1 of renovations on this space, and I think I embrace imperfection more than I used to. Anyway, rather than just caulk the gaps (which I did downstairs and regret), I skimmed out the wall around the fireplace with Quick-Set Lite 45 to make it look like it’s always been there. It’s such a small thing but I really think it makes a difference in this case! To keep dust to a minimum (still the only bedroom!), I came back as the joint compound was setting up, misted it with water, and smoothed it with my trowel.

I didn’t go crazy on patching compound on the mantel, but I did fill in the screw holes and some of the large dents at the bottom on each side. I love this 3M Patch Plus stuff for filling little stuff, by the way—seriously the best patching compound I’ve used, PLUS it dries really fast. Technology!

I used the little sander attachment for the Multi-Max to quickly smooth down the patches. I wasn’t sure I’d like this any better than my mouse sander, but it’s great. It has no trouble being up against a corner, and it’s powerful and precise and awesome. The Multi-Max comes with a ton of different grit sanding pads, too.

AND SO. A little caulk, primer, and paint. Bungee, what say you?

This dog never looks impressed. He kind of has RBF. Tell me I’m wrong.

This wall is awkward for furniture (that bedside table is 2′ wide, for reference) and big art felt kind of imposing, but I think the mantel really feels nice. It also makes the room feel more appropriately formal, which as the master bedroom it ought to be! Much like when I pulled this same nonsense one floor down in the living room, I feel like it’s given the room some missing sense of order.

In a house where so much stuff is original, I really love these little fantasy kinds of projects. Is it historically accurate? No, not really, I don’t think, but I think it could probably fool me if I didn’t know better, and that’s what’s fun about it! When you’re missing original charm, playing pretend is A-OK in my book.

I thought it would be cool to throw a huge mirror up there, but I think this one is too huge. I think it feels better in real life than it looks in photos, maybe. Once in a while I get a burst of weird energy and move all the stuff on my walls around, so…eh. I’ll live with it for a bit. That thing is super heavy.

Thank goodness this struggling plant has a place to live now. Bungee thought it would be fun to destroy as a puppy and it’s been fighting for its life ever since. I got the pot at an estate sale a couple of weeks ago. The little blob (pear?) came by chance in a box lot I bid on at an auction and I kinda dig it. The little bust is of my dog Linus, and was made by a client shortly after he passed away. I love it.

I’m so happy this project is done and the parts to do it are no longer floating around the house! Of course now the bedroom feels different (bigger! fancier!) and I like the direction it’s going. I’d love to replace the bed with something a bit heavier and higher off the floor, and someday I’ll find the perfect side tables, and rug, and lighting situation, and learn how to arrange my bed linens Blogger Style, and then all my problems will be solved.

Bluestone Basement Laundry: Moldings! Walls! Storage!

This post is a paid partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

A little over a year ago, you may recall that I got back from the most insane once-in-a-lifetime expedition to Antarctica. Antarctica! I still have a hard time grasping that it was real, but I went with my family and they’ll back me up on this. It was decidedly more of a vacation than an expedition, but the tour company insisted on calling it an expedition and that felt so much more adventurous and exciting. Whatever it was, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

An unexpected side-effect of going on this trip didn’t hit until a couple of months ago, though. I began having some variation on the same dream every single night—that due to some clerical error, or a last-minute cancellation, we were all headed back to Antarctica to do it all over again. Another Christmas celebrated at the bottom of the globe with penguins and icebergs. It was news I could not have been more excited about as I’d quickly clear my schedule and pack up all of last year’s gear and get ready to depart. Then I’d wake up really disappointed that I’d imagined the whole thing and think about it a lot throughout the day.

I don’t usually dream like this, by the way. Or make a habit of talking about dreams, because it is objectively the most annoying thing ever. Like even more annoying than talking about your own vacation which I AM ALSO DOING RIGHT NOW. I guess you could say I’m on THIN ICE here!!! GET IT?And now I’m your dad.

What is happening. I promise this is going somewhere.

Obviously, Antarctica is mostly about the wonders of our natural world, but I found myself really compelled by the unnatural wonders, too—specifically, how human beings in all their perseverance and inventiveness figure out how to make the most inhospitable place on earth into home. For decades now, Antarctica has hosted researchers from all over the world. You have to get there by ship, and it’s not an easy or fast or inexpensive journey. Once you’re there, you’re there. You have only exactly the supplies you were given—to eat, drink, stay warm, stay clean, stay entertained, do your job, keep from going nuts. When it’s summer in the northern hemisphere, these researchers basically don’t see the sun for weeks. Close quarters. Strangers you very quickly have to get along with. Grueling conditions outdoors. No real recourse if something goes wrong. It’s not unlike working on a space station, except imagine if the spaceship had to be built IN SPACE by the astronauts on board. It’s basically that.

Here’s the point: when I first got the go-ahead from Lowe’s to renovate the basement laundry project for Bluestone Cottage, I leapt at the chance and then realized I had no idea what I actually wanted to do or how I actually wanted it to look. I’ve thought a lot more about the rest of the house than I’ve ever dwelled on the basement, and so I figured I’d take the whole figure-out-the-basic-strokes-and-feel-it-out-from-there approach that sometimes I am wont to do.

AND THEN, one bright morning, inspiration struck. I awoke with A VISION. OF A THING I’D SEEN. Grabbed my phone. Located the pics from Antarctica. Port Lockroy, circa 1944. It’s a British research station that’s now a historic site, and also hosts the continent’s only gift shop and post office. That’s the exterior, above, clad in black tar paper and that hot hot hot red/orange trim. So good.

Oh, hello! This is a direction I can get behind for a basement laundry room. And I imagine the construction of it looked something like how I’m currently spending my days—working in a confined space, in the cold except for my Craftsman propane heater (a TRUE revelation, omg), with whatever supplies I have available, trying to keep any waste to a minimum and just make it happen.

(I know, I know. Yes, Lowe’s is sponsoring and supplying most of the materials. But to provide some insight on that, that doesn’t make it a blank check! I still have to be scrappy and crafty to make this room work, considering it needs E V E R Y T H I N G. Also, actually procuring those materials isn’t as simple as regular shopping, so MUCH LIKE THOSE ANTARCTIC EXPLORERS (except not at all), I can’t just run out every time I need something. Except to my garage, which like, those guys had to keep their stuff somewhere. Right? Except they didn’t really have power tools. You know what, never mind. I actually can’t imagine the logistics of building something on Antarctica in the 1940s; I’m sorry, I gave it my best effort, and now we will move on.)

Am I crazy? I might have gone crazy. But I also really want to rip off THIS WHOLE LEWK because it just makes me so happy? I love how modest and simple and un-done these spaces are. It’s preserved from when it served as both living quarters and an active research station, and had to function well for both so nobody lost their damn minds—a legitimate risk with all that isolation! I love how homespun everything is. And I love the use of color—you have to imagine that between the harsh conditions and the long stretches without daylight, it was a smart, strategic decision to introduce bright colors into the space and paint everything including the utilities. It feels like kind of unintentionally great design at work, and very appropriate for that finished/un-finished old house basement vibe. It’s never going to feel like just another room in the house, so let’s…not make it like the rest of the house!

How much do you want to bet they mixed the dark green chair rail paint (which is really just a painted line, not molding) with the white to make that color on the lower half of the walls? I bet they did. And it’s pretty perfect. I’ve become a little fixated on it.

I even love the glossy glossy walls! This is certainly old oil paint, and it just feels very…British. They know how to slap on a perfectly-imperfect glossy coat of paint like nobody’s business. I think this is true but I could just have a weird bias expressing itself. 

Look at this simple ceiling-mounted drying rack! Looks like a fun afternoon project. I love that someone took the time to create that angled detail on the side instead of just using square boards all the way around.

OK, are we feeling this direction? If you are not, well, that is TOO BAD because I am. Sorrynotsorry. Let’s paint some stuff bright green and party in the basement.

Here’s a quick sketch of what I’m thinking space-wise! I want the room to function well as a laundry space but it’s also going to need to pack in a lot of storage and still house all the utility stuff that makes the house work.

That little boiler room in the back is where you used to enter the basement when I bought the house, but relocating the stairs saved precious square footage in the kitchen AND created that little closet in the basement perfect for a high-efficiency hot water heater/boiler combo (likely the same one I have in my own house!). The alcove seemed like the most natural place to put the washer and dryer, side-by side (you MIGHT be able to squeeze stacked units in here, depending on the size/brand, but it would be VERY tight. The ceiling height is only slightly over 6 feet) with a nice work surface on top and some kind of storage above—I’m still tossing around ideas for that! Opposite the machines, I think I’ll just mount pegboard over that whole wall, and a vintage ceiling-mounted drying rack in front of it, with enough clearance between the two so it’s not weird. I had considered pegboard over the long work bench and shelving on this other wall, but I didn’t think that worked with the drying rack, and there’s nowhere else for that, so. We’ll all find out together.

This is where we left off, with the walls framed, electric and plumbing roughed in, Sakrete Self-Leveling Resurfacer laid, and baseboards installed! While I obviously want this to feel like a finished space, it’s still an old house basement—in other words, I don’t totally trust it, haha! So I’m trying really hard to be smart about the materials and the way the room is assembled, so any potential issues down the line can be addressed without major upset or drama. Basically I want the whole room to be an access panel because you just never know.

To that end, I used scrap Azek boards for the baseboards—a PVC board that’s really for exterior work, and therefore won’t mold or rot in the case of any moisture intrusion issues. Once painted it looks like wood, and it’s felt SO GOOD putting those piles of scrap to productive use!

I took this hot n’ sexy selfie to commemorate my second encounter with DIY closed-cell spray foam insulation. I don’t think we need to go into that process again because WE JUST WENT OVER THIS, but I had a couple of leftover boxes of Dow Froth-Pak 210 from my guest room and decided to use them here. I’ll more than likely hire out the insulation of the rest of the house, but I needed this done now and it’s a reasonably small space to do it. Spraying over stone foundation walls feels…I don’t know, wrong? But it’s extremely common practice here for finished basement walls because it provides insulation, is unaffected by moisture, and creates a great vapor barrier—better than other materials because it doesn’t leave voids up against the uneven surface of the stone. In a newer basement with block walls or poured concrete, rigid foam insulation like this is more typical, and a big cost savings.

For the walls and ceiling, I opted to use this 1/4″ beaded birch plywood. Since I’m working almost entirely alone save for some help with the heaviest lifting, this material is lightweight and easy for me to manage on my own as I cut and install it. I think it’ll add some necessary texture and detail to the space, too! Covering the seams with simple trim and leaving screw heads exposed should make it pretty easy to remove the panels for whatever reason down the line, like if you needed to access a pipe or an electrical cable or just want to check on what’s happening behind the walls. And then easy to put back up!

As a precaution, I primed the back of each piece with this Rust-Oleum mold-killing primer, which seems to really be for safely painting over an already-moldy surface, but also should prevent mold from growing (or recurring) in the first place, if I’m understanding the can correctly. There’s an MDF version of this plywood, too, but MDF and moisture do NOT mix well, and…you know. I WORRY. ABOUT EVERYTHING.

Walls, going up! Getting to this stage is so nice. Something to look at!!

CAN WE KINDA SEE IT?! I still had scrap Azek boards, so I ripped them to 1/2″ thickness on the table saw and used them for the “chair rail” and the vertical seams. Those little trim pieces are just tacked up with a few brad nails—easy to pry off to access the screws holding the plywood up. I’m trying to squeeze every square inch out of each sheet of plywood, so you can see off-cuts from the walls beginning to make up the ceiling. It’s starting to feel like a room!

OK, so! In terms of some specific products that will make this MAGIC happen, I’m keeping it super simple and utilitarian, with a couple of upgrades!

THE MACHINES! Obviously the washer and dryer are going to be a pretty important part of creating a laundry room, and there are SO MANY options available now—I think back to buying my washer and dryer only 5-ish years ago and it’s like a different world out there! Washers that connect to Wifi! Dryers with built-in drying racks! Bright LED lights! The future is now, and it’s nuts. On top of that, there’s the age-old front-loader vs. top-loader debate, and now these incredibly snazzy machines like the Samsung FlexWash and FlexDry that have BOTH. Since I’m not honestly sure if this house will be sold or rented, and I didn’t want to blow my entire budget for the room on the machines, I was looking for something kind of mid-range and with good reviews. I’ve LOVED my LG machines in my own house, and I also love having a nice big worktop over a set of front-loaders—I prefer it to top-loaders or stacked units, personally, so that kind of eliminated the fancy Samsung FlexWash/FlexDry notion. Lowe’s tends to have a lot of appliance sales throughout the year, and I’ve noticed that last year’s models tend to go on clearance when the new ones come out, so that’s where I like to start my search!

THEN. And I’m embarrassed to admit this: I thought to check the measurements. Not of the nook where the machines are supposed to go—that’s definitely big enough—but the doorway down to the basement that machines need to fit through! OOPSIE. SOUND THE ALARM. WE HAVE A MAJOR SCREW-UP. Um. Do people still use…washboards? Because machines are not fitting down into this basement.

LUCKILY, because this is Lowe’s and solving conundrums such as these is kind of their thing, there were STILL a lot of options for me! Just different options—smaller options! It’s a small house, so I’m not going to sweat small machines. I actually think it makes a lot of sense. After lots of comparing reviews, prices, and features, I landed on this highly-reviewed Bosch 500-series washer and the matching electric dryer. There’s a slightly cheaper 300-series and a slightly more expensive 800-series—but I didn’t really see myself using the added features of the 800 series, so the 500 felt like a good bet. Other brands like Samsung, GE, Whirlpool, and LG all make their own version of machines this size, all available at Lowe’s, but the Bosch reviews put it over the edge for me.

One thing that’s highly intriguing (to me. just me?) is that the dryer is ventless—which some people love, some people hate, and most Americans don’t even realize is a thing. I guess in Europe it’s the norm if you have a dryer at all, so it’s gotta be OK right?! These small machines are also the norm across the pond, and often installed in kitchens like a dishwasher. From what I understand, the ventless dryer does take longer and clothes aren’t likely to come out bone dry like they do with a vented dryer, but the result is a more energy-efficient laundering experience that’s much gentler on your clothes and linens. So let’s embrace it. It also means I don’t have to figure out a way to vent a dryer here, which was MORE than welcome news—please don’t make me go into the crawlspace, for I may never return.

SO. Having cleared that hurdle, the other stuff came pretty easily. Let’s run it down. Here’s the same mood board again for easier reference, in case you haven’t committed it to memory.

WALLS! Walls and ceilings are this beaded plywood! At my store, this is back with the moldings rather than up with the lumber where the rest of the plywood is, just head’s up! There’s a different beaded plywood in the lumber section, evidently suitable for interior or exterior use, but it was a lot rougher and I worried the prep would kill me. The panels I’m using are very smooth and nice—just like the MDF panels but real plywood! It would be great for backing cabinets or bookshelves or a million other things, too.

PAINT! I wasn’t kidding when I said I wanted to rip off that kitchen in Port Lockroy. I got samples of Ginger Sugar, Kelp (how appropriate!), and Palace Green, all from Valspar—eek! So bright! Greens are tricky. I hope this works but like, it might not. Ha! I also think I’m going to take the cue from my inspiration and bump it all the way up to high gloss—I’ve never used this Valspar High Gloss enamel, so I’ll let you know! SO MANY THINGS SO UNLIKE ME, I KNOW.

STORAGE! First up is regular old pegboard! Pegboard walls are just so functional for a small storage space like this one, so cheap to execute (63 cents a square foot!), and have that cute vintage vibe. For a bit more money, steel or polypropylene look-alikes are available too. I’ll probably just pick up a mixed bag of hooks and stuff for it. I’m hoping this room also comes in handy for ME as I renovate the rest of the house!

For the workbench, I picked up one of these inexpensive, old-faithful Edsal shelving units. I grew up with these in my basement! I have them in my current basement! I’ve never assembled one as a workbench, though, even though it’s designed to do both, and I’m weirdly excited. Unfortunately the particleboard shelves it comes with are basically trash (they’re thin and sag with any weight) so I’ll be swapping those for cabinet-grade ply. I’ll probably paint the metal frame with one of the accent colors.

For the top of the workbench AND for the worktop above the machines, I sprung for this nice Baltic Birch butcherblock counter rather than ply or particleboard, and I think it’s going to be VERY classy. It’s actually the exact same butcherblock I currently have in my kitchen, and it’s great stuff—solid Birch and good quality. There’s not a lot of fancy happening down here, so I felt OK about spending the $240 for an 8′ countertop that should last approximately forever if properly maintained. I also think that natural wood element will add some nice balance with all the painted surfaces and the concrete floor.

For shelving, I’m keeping it simple, simple, simple. I think I’ll even reuse the wide boards that used to live elsewhere in the basement as shelving when I bought the house, and just use a few inexpensive, sturdy brackets like these.

LIGHTING! I had the electricians rough in 4 recessed lights, plus a box over the machines that I’m not entirely sure what to do with yet. Normally I’m not into recessed lighting in an old house, but in a basement with 6′ ceilings, I’m not sure what else you’d do! Recessed lighting has come a long way from the cans I grew up with, though—all the LED options are much less conspicuous, and they last 30 years!—so I think they’re a really practical choice here. Good lighting in a basement is absolutely essential to it feeling like an OK place to be. I’m hoping I like the light quality of these GE 65-W equivalent dimmable lights, which will just screw into the housing that’s already there and sit flush with the ceiling.

STYLE! CHICNESS! I’m excited to dress this room up with a few accessories and things (even if it’s just for photos, it’s so much fun after you’ve done a bunch of hard renovation work!). Most of that stuff will probably be practical items like tools and vintage bits and bobs, but I think a simple warm indoor-outdoor rug will work well down here, and Lowe’s carries a great selection of them under the Allen + Roth label—which, by the way, has rescued me countless times when I need something good-looking and well-made and affordable (so good for lighting, especially!). A rug feels like something very faraway and distant, but I’m trying to have this done in like a week, so I guess nothing is really that far off—ha! WISH ME LUCK. It’s possible/probable I’ll need it.

Adding Self-Leveling Concrete to a Basement Floor!

This post is a paid partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

If you caught my post yesterday, you know that I’m back at work on the long-suffering Bluestone Cottage, and that the first space I’m really tackling is…THE BASEMENT. I’m finishing a basement! This is a first!

This is where we started so many eons ago. It was awful for many reasons.

It’s made less awful by the addition of work lights, not to mention the passage of time, but it was really, really bad. Aside from all the junk, there was also a defunct oil-burning boiler, obsolete heat pipes, rotted posts, termite-damaged joists, and—to my surprise—a moldy falling-down drywall ceiling and CARPETING. WALL-TO-WALL-CARPETING. That carpeting probably tops the list of grossest things I’ve ever removed during a renovation, and that includes mummy squirrels, a tub that someone died and partially decomposed in, and an enormous pile of 90s porno mags for people with an affinity for extremely large-busted women.

When I was designing how this house would work, I decided it was just too small to dedicate living space to a washer and dryer, but I still wanted it to have both. That left one option: basement laundry. I’ll let that shiver leave your spine. I know that’s not most people’s ideal, but it’s better than no laundry at all and I’m determined to make it nice, finished-feeling, and an asset rather than a bummer. It’s 200 square feet of potential, and I’m going to try to make the most of it!

Finishing a basement in an old house makes me a little nervous. In part because I’ve never done it, and in part because back in the day, these spaces were never meant to be finished in the way the rest of the house was. A lot of old basements, like mine, are so clogged up with wiring and plumbing and support posts that the idea of finishing it feels borderline ludicrous. And since my own home renovation is such a long-term project, I frequently need access to the utilities as new work is added and old work is removed. The basement just can’t be a precious space in many old houses—but clean and comfortable and utilitarian all feel like achievable goals, especially here where all the utilities are brand new.

Totally different angle (that nook is over to the left, just out of frame), but this is where I started a couple of weeks ago. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but this does actually represent major progress, just not the beautiful kind. It happened in fits and spurts. You’ll notice a MESS of wiring waiting to get tied into the panel (all new, though!) and a bunch of new pex and PVC plumbing that will eventually make 1.5 bathrooms, a couple of hose bibs, a kitchen, a washing machine, and a hot water radiator heat system all function. LET. US. PRAY. Also, all the walls are now framed for insulation and finishes,* and the floor joists above have been reinforced and the old support “posts” have been removed. SO IT LOOKS LIKE GARBAGE but it’s actually a lot of money and work to get to this point of dungeon horror.

*We framed the walls in pressure-treated 2x4s. I learned later that this was maybe overkill—you’d definitely want to use pressure treated for the bottom plate as it’s in contact with the concrete, but vertical supports are typically done in fir or white lumber unless they’re actually affixed to the masonry. Oops. Now we know.

NOW LET’S START MAKING IT PRETTY. PLEASE. I NEED TO SEE SOMETHING NICE-ISH. It’s not good for your brain to have a job site look like this for long. As me how I know.

VERY CLEARLY, THERE IS A LOT TO DO. And I can’t be spending a ton of time or money on it, it just has to get done. So first order of business? Getting the floor in shape. It didn’t necessarily have to come first, but for my sanity it did, and also the machines are being delivered soon and I want to be able to have the delivery guys bring them downstairs because it’s going to be tricky getting them down.

So. Floor. On the bright side there was already a concrete floor, so we’re not starting COMPLETELY from scratch, but it was ROUGH. Very rough—think some crumbling, some cracking, some holes, various old patch jobs, and not remotely flat or level. I think part of making this basement laundry plan work lies in making sure all parts of it feel nice and clean-able, and the existing floor was anything but! It was well beyond the point of any kind of quick and easy solution (like just painting it, or an epoxy kind of resurfacer), so it seemed like a job for self-leveling concrete as a first step.

Now, I’ve used self-leveling concrete a couple times over the years, and I’d always been under the impression that it was all supposed to be used as an underlayment for something else—like a floating laminate, a stick-down tile, a ceramic tile, etc,—but not as a finished floor surface. And that does appear to be true for some of these products, but some sleuthing confirmed that Sakrete’s Fastset Self-Leveling Resurfacer can actually be used either as an underlayment or as a wear surface! I’m totally fine with a nice concrete floor for a basement, so my plan became to just seal the concrete rather than going through the time and expense of adding a whole layer of additional flooring. Groovy.

That being said, actually installing the concrete is a bit more involved than just mixing and pouring! There are a lot of products to compare and instructions for each to follow for best results. Note how I say best results—SOMETIMES it’s not possible to follow every single instruction or meet every single ideal condition, and you know what? SOMETIMES you just have to do your best. My experience with concrete has been that it’s more forgiving than package instructions might lead you to believe, and you can still get a very nice, long-lasting and good-looking result without necessarily achieving the OPTIMAL result or performance (we’re talking about cosmetic work here, not load-bearing). It’s ok. Sometimes you’re working in an unheated, uninsulated old house in upstate New York in January with a $100 propane heater, trying to make it work. FOR INSTANCE.

So here’s what I did:

STEP 1: PREP.

The most underrated phase of any project is the prep. It’s no fun but you can’t skip it. With self-leveling concrete (or really any kind of coating at all, like paint!), you want a clean and stable substrate for the new material to bond to—which in this case was a tall order.

I thought I could prep for the concrete in a few hours. It took like four days. I hauled—and this is not hyperbole—on the order of about 150 pounds of just DUST out of the basement. Dirt and dust and sawdust and other detritus captured by the Shopvac (I have a huge Shopvac, but I find that I really prefer this little guy when working in a small space). I swept. I vacuumed. I swept some more. I vacuumed some more. I scrubbed the really dirty areas with a wire brush. I vacuumed some more. I did my best. The instructions mention mechanically profiling the surface to promote adhesion, but I didn’t do that. I also didn’t use any special chemicals or anything, since I needed the floor to be dry enough to accept the primer and concrete—outdoors a pressure-washing or something might be a better option than for indoor work where there’s nowhere for water to drain. I just cleaned as thoroughly as I could and called it good enough.

STEP 2: PATCH

All of my cleaning efforts exposed a few areas of major damage in the floor—in severe spots, right down to the dirt underneath the slab! Yikes. This is not how you’d pour a slab today, ha! But it’s what I’m working with, and excavating it all out and installing a vapor barrier and gravel and a new few inches of reinforced concrete is very much not in the cards.

There are various products around for patching areas of damaged concrete, and I used this one because I had it! I’m pretty sure this came out of Anna‘s basement, meaning this 10-lb bucket of concrete dust has probably been passed around for about a decade now—ha! One of the joys of finishing this house is going to be using up SO MUCH STUFF I’ve accumulated either with this house in mind, or leftovers and scrap from other projects. It’s highly motivating.

Just follow the mixing instructions for whatever patch product you’re using and make sure you give it time to cure before moving onto the next steps! For this step, I used this concrete binding adhesive in place of water for extra security. The dark areas are what I patched.

STEP 3: PRIME

It’s probably a good idea to vacuum again right before priming. Again, priming will depend on the concrete product you’re using—mine called for the use of a self-leveling bonding primer, although it didn’t specify a specific product. Of course it didn’t!

After some hunting around, I landed on this MAPEI Primer T from Lowe’s, which appears to be for this very thing. It was actually back in the flooring section with thinset and grout and stuff, rather than up by the concrete in the building materials area. Just FYI!

For added excitement, the primer is hot pink! The package instructions said to water it down by about half for this kind of application, so that’s what I did. Watered down, it’s very thin and sticky, like a glue.

Thinning it in a bucket made it easy to just pour some on the floor and roll it out with a 9″ rough-nap roller to spread it, aiming for a nice even coat. This stuff is a little tricky—it’s dry and ready to go in a few hours, but you want to lay the concrete within 24 hours of priming or they recommend re-priming. This gives you a 20-ish hour window to pour all the concrete.

STEP 4: POUR

Following the instructions on the Self-Leveling Resurfacer, I measured out my water and mixed in my concrete—each 50-lb bag fits nicely in a 5 gallon bucket. The package specifies 2 minutes of mixing, which is not a short amount of time when you’re standing there controlling the drill, so it’s good to use a real timer.

Speaking of the drill, almost immediately I knew I had a problem! I thought I could get away with using my regular drill, which was a mistake (I do love that drill, though. All my Porter Cable tools have been such workhorses, and they’re really reasonably priced. Just not for mixing concrete). Then I thought I could get away with the more heavy-duty hammer drill that I have for occasions such as mixing joint compound, and before long that one was emitting smoke and not at all cutting it. So I got through three bags of concrete before calling it quits, and deciding I needed to pick up a more powerful mixing drill.

One tricky thing to keep in mind is that for a solid slab, as far as I understand, you really want to do the pour in one take. If you can’t for some reason (like if your drill is weak and Lowe’s is closed), it’s better to re-prime and re-pour over the section you already did than try to blend a dried pour with new stuff. Oof.

ANNNNNNNNND, curveball! The electrician finally got back to me. They could be there the next morning to finish tying all the rough electric into the panel (which I’ll need in order to close that wall), get the recessed lighting powered up so I could stop dangling work lights all over the place in this dark basement, and add a few outlets around the room since I wasn’t especially focused on the basement when they did the initial rough-in and didn’t specify them.

When the hard-to-get-ahold-of-tradesperson says jump, you ask how high and rearrange your whole life to accommodate.

That morning, the area I poured looked like this, which was VERY exciting. It was…relatively smooth (that huge hole was in the middle of that floor!). Solid. Dry. But also very…grey. And very…flat. Which is how it’s supposed to look, but I guess I was hoping for something with some more variation and movement. This was more like someone spilled a thick layer of grey paint on the floor. Hmmmmm. Something to stew on!

So the electricians did, in fact, show up, do all the things I asked, and it was a relief. Time to get back to work on this floor.

PSYCH!

ANNNNNNNNNNND, then the plumber got back to me. He could be there the next morning to finish a few little undone things with the rough-in, and take a look at re-routing some of the more lazily run pex through joists and in bays rather than on the surface of the joists, where I’d like to be installing a ceiling.

Floor can wait, I guess.

Morning turned into afternoon, and the plumbers showed up. They got to work. There wasn’t enough time in the day left for them to finish, so they’d be back in the morning.

Morning came. Midday came. Afternoon came. Plumbers cancelled. Next morning. Oy vey. I occupied my time by talking about my puppy.

The plumbing took all of the next day. And then he was missing a part, so he’d be back the next morning. I JUST WANT TO POUR MY FLOOR ALREADY EVERYONE GET OUT OF MY WAY. These things happen.

So, with everyone out of my hair: take two. Re-clean it all. Much easier with that layer of bonding primer.

Re-prime the floor. This was also easier the second time around, and used about half the amount of product because the concrete isn’t as porous with a coat already on it.

Like I mentioned, I really needed a more powerful drill to handle mixing the concrete, so I picked up this DeWalt hammer drill from Lowe’s which was on sale for $99! Not bad! It’s 10amps and didn’t struggle at all as I went through bag after bag, much to my relief. It’s fitted with this mixing paddle, which is recommended for this type of concrete.

I also decided I wanted to attempt something different than the solid grey look of the self-leveling resurfacer, so I bought some powdered cement pigment! I read in a couple of places that using regular latex paint in place of water to tint concrete also works nicely, but I figured I’d stick with the product that’s actually designed to do this job instead. I wanted to warm up the color—kind of an orange-ish yellow-ish brown-ish beige-ish, maybe?—so I got colors called Red, Terra Cotta, and Buff. I figured if I combined them I’d get something close to what was in my brain, and if I was a little inconsistent between batches I could blend as I went to get some variation across the pour. I used a 1/3rd cup measuring cup to measure my powders, and about 1-1.5 cups of powder per bag of concrete. I’d suggest buying more than you think you need of any product in this post including the concrete so you don’t run out, and then returning what you don’t use.

To mix the concrete, I found it easiest to measure out the water first, mix that with the pigment, and then add about half the bag of concrete and mix. This should combine quickly and easily. Then add the second half and mix for two minutes, pausing to scrape around the sides where powder may not be getting incorporated properly. It’s about the consistency of cake batter. It’s tempting to add more water but you really shouldn’t because it’ll affect the strength as it cures. A white film on top of the concrete as it’s setting is an indication of too much water.

If you can wrangle a second set of hands, I’d recommend it. If you have one bucket mixing while the other is pouring, the whole process will move faster and speed is pretty key here. Each bag has about 25 minutes of working time, and you want to keep a wet edge throughout the process. Obviously don’t work yourself into a corner, but try to start in the high spot if you can.

If you can’t wrangle a second set of hands, don’t despair. Someday we’ll both find friends who want to play concrete with us, just not today. You got this. Don’t need no man.

Now we’re cooking! I stand by my pigment ideas, but I wish I had spent time making up samples and letting them dry and adjusting as-needed—at this point my timeline was blown and I just wanted to get it done and I couldn’t tell whether the color would change a lot as it dried, or not, and I just kept moving and embracing the mystery of it all. Jesus, take the wheel.

(There’s also plenty you can do to change the appearance after the pour, so don’t freak!)

Working by myself, it took 3-4 hours or so to mix and pour all of the concrete start to finish. Then, at the end, I was feeling a little bonkers and like the floor was still looking kind of…flat, so I started using my hands to kind of fling droplets of water onto the surface for the splatter-y effect. This is…not part of the instructions. It’s called CREATIVE LIBERTY, OK?

Interesting. Very interesting. I’m not sure. The stakes are low here; I am not concerned.

Again, to be clear: the “self-leveling” part of the “self-leveling resurfacer” is only partially true. It levels out to a smooth texture on its own, but it doesn’t really level the floor on its own—it does kind of maintain the pitches and contours of the substrate. You’re also not supposed to apply less than 1/8″ or more than 1″—in other words, your floor already has to be fairly level if that’s truly what you’re after. One way to compensate is using a different concrete product to build up really low areas before using the self-leveler, and/or to lightly use a trowel or a 2×4 to skim and level as you pour, starting in the high spot of the floor if possible, although the instructions explicitly state that a trowel is optional and should be used sparingly if at all.

OR, you take my approach, which is basically that dead-on level floors don’t belong in old house basements anyway and clean-able was the whole goal here to begin with, and you’ve pretty much achieved it and that’s a win.

Now that it’s had a couple of days to dry out, I think I like it?! It’s not unlike the color of a bandaid, but the splattery effect came out kind of nice, and most importantly it’s smooooooth! It’s easy to sweep! It’s easy to vacuum! The space feels SO much brighter and cleaner already, and there still aren’t even walls or ceilings.

I went ahead and installed baseboards because I can still insulate with them installed, and it was something to do while I considered a third pour—partly to try again on the color, partly to try to continue to improve the leveling. I decided that 14 bags—a mere 700 pounds of concrete powder— was enough, though, and I’m just fine with this! I’m tired. That being said, the baseboards are level so you can see how the floor still pitches. I think I’ll cover those gaps with a shoe molding and call it a day.

Even though this basement is luckily quite dry, I’m still trying to take every possible precaution against moisture and mold—so for the baseboards, which seem the most likely to get wet should there be any water intrusion, I used PVC boards usually for exterior trim (which, woah, I guess are on major sale right now?! 75% off?!). Also? I ALREADY HAD IT! I was able to rip down scraps and use entirely off-cuts from work on my own house and a couple other projects over the years. It’s not an inexpensive material, so this worked out great—plus there’s one less pile of stuff in my garage! The Cortex hidden fasteners made for this stuff are amazing—screw, plug the hole with a little pre-made plug, and you’re ready to paint! A little spendy, but worth it.


I think it’s best practice to wait 28 days for the concrete to fully cure before adding a sealer, so I’m not trying to screw it up pretending they mean hours instead of days. I did want to get a glimpse of what it would look like with a sealer on it, though, by just wetting an area down a little with water. It does make the color nicer, I think! Still not sure. I want to see more things come together first. But now that the concrete is in place, there are so many options! It could be painted, stenciled, paint-splattered, stained, epoxied, or sealed with a number of different products.

Coming along! For now, I’m going to let the floor simmer a little bit while I move on to the rest of the space—insulation, walls, ceilings, storage, paint—eek! I think this might actually work!

P.S.— I don’t even really know how to begin to respond to all the genuine kindness and understanding and just all-around-amazingness that came my way yesterday after I hit publish on that big ole post. It was a difficult one to write and put out there, and I’m just so beyond grateful and lucky to have this community around me, and that we can all feel safe talking to each other about hard stuff. It’s an extraordinary thing to be a part of, and I cannot thank you all enough for creating it.

How to Build Your Own Vintage-Style Cabinets

This post is a paid partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

Let’s build some cabinets for my pantry! If you read my last post about the progress in the back of the house, you know what we’re starting with. A plywood box in need of ALL the finishing work!

Here’s the thing. As much as I love to learn new things, I’d always been a little overwhelmed when reading about building cabinetry. I’ve looked into it. I bought one of those books on display by the Lowe’s Pro Services desk a few years ago. Exhibit A:

Once in a while I will look at this book and quickly become overwhelmed. Building cabinetry feels like that fine line where DIY becomes…woodworking. As in, I am a woodworker. I feel like a special kind of person gets to say that, and I am not that person.

Added to this, there are SO. MANY. WAYS. to build cabinets. Cabinets that look more or less the same can be constructed completely differently, from the materials to the way the joinery is accomplished to the construction of the shelves, doors, face frames, drawers, and on and on. Most of it looked really hard. Like, too hard. I have neither the tools, the skills, or the shop space for a lot of it. But then—enter the butler’s pantry, stage left. It really calls for custom, because the sizes are weird and I want it to look old. So I decided to brush off the fear and get to work devising a way to accomplish my cabinetry goals THE EASY WAY. Crawl before you can run, right? So I consulted various tutorials and how-to’s, and then combined them to form a process that felt achievable given my limitations.

OH RIGHT, I HAVE LIMITATIONS! For instance:

Number 1: I herniated a disc in my back, causing super intense sciatica! The physical pain of this is matched only by the psychological pain of knowing that my body has begun to degrade, and soon I will be dead. But more pertinent to this project is that lifting heavy things was a no-go, and I couldn’t be going up and down a million stairs. I had to keep it light, and my work within a limited amount of space.

Number 2: I have to transport plywood in a regular car, because I was too dumb to buy a pick-up.

Number 3: I don’t have a nice big shop space or an enormous variety of tools. I have some tools. But not all the tools.

So! You know what we’re dealing with. Let’s get into it.

STEP 1: PICK A STYLE!

I assault you with this bummer picture from my old Brooklyn kitchen because it conveniently contains both of the most common styles: full overlay and partial overlay. Full overlay is where the doors cover the entire face of the cabinet—it’s what we probably see (at least in blogworld?) most in new kitchens. These are simple to assemble because they don’t have a face-frame, work well with soft-close hinges, and maximize interior space. These cabinets often come flat-packed and ready to assemble.

Partial-overlay style is a bit different: there’s a face frame and a door that covers part of it, leaving part of it visible. The backside of the door is typically rabbeted to fit within the rough opening created by the face frame. These are usually pre-assembled, ready to install, and inexpensive.

The third is the inset style, which is has a face-frame and doors and drawer fronts that sit flush with it. This example comes courtesy of some friends of mine in Kingston restoring a Victorian—how gorgeous, right? This is the style we probably associate most with pre-war cabinetry, or all those fancy trendy British kitchens from the likes of DeVol and Plain English. Nowadays it’s almost entirely reserved for custom cabinetry, at least in the States, which of course is the most expensive option, requires the most precision to build, and of course is exactly what I wanted! We’ll be building this style.

STEP 2: MATERIALS SELECTION!

A mistake I often see in the DIY world is getting the wrong materials—for instance, using 3/4″ plywood intended for subfloors where a paint or stain-grade surface is desired. Don’t do that! Luckily, there are multiple engineered options that are appropriate, including cabinet-grade plywood, MDF, MDF-core plywood, and particleboard-core plywood, to name a few! I prefer a good cabinet-grade plywood myself (it’s strong, stable, holds screws well, and is pretty easy to work with), so I selected this 3/4″ maple plywood from Lowe’s for my cabinet boxes—or the carcases, or the carcasses, if you want to get fancy. I’ve gone on a deep dive into the correct spelling and it appears carcase and carcass are both correct. Carcass is certainly the most fun to say over and over again, so we’ll go with that.

STEP 3: CUT LIST! AND IN-STORE CUTTING.

Prior to going to the store, I spent some time figuring out all of the individual pieces I’d need for the sides, tops, bottoms, and shelves of each cabinet. Using that cut list, I diagrammed the rip cuts needed for each sheet of plywood so that a store associate could take care of the bigger cuts for me. If you’re working alone, it can be very difficult and/or unsafe to manhandle a full sheet of plywood onto a table saw (it’s better to cross-cut into a more manageable size with a circular saw first) so this made the individual pieces easier to lift with my decrepit back and my impractical car, and the whole job easier. All in all, I needed 7 sheets of plywood, which left most of a sheet leftover for mistakes, extra shelves, or my next plywood project!

I like to give the store associate measurements a bit larger than I actually need, as I’ll refine them to exact dimensions at home. Their cuts tend to be a little inconsistent, and you may end up with pretty eaten up veneer along the cuts if the store hasn’t changed the saw blade recently.

STEP 4: PRIME!

Once home, it’s a good idea to pre-prime your panels. You may only need to do one side if the exterior of your cabinets won’t be visible. I skipped this, but it could save some time later on.

STEP 5: CUT YOUR PIECES TO EXACT SIZE!

Once home, it’s easy to run the pieces one after the other through my table saw, producing the identical, consistent pieces I need for construction. Label all your pieces with a pencil. I’ve had this Porter Cable table saw from Lowe’s for a number of years, by the way, and it’s been great even with heavy use and abuse. It doesn’t appear to still be available, although this Rockwell one looks to be very similar.

No table saw? No worries! Two products you might want to know about: the Kreg Rip-Cut and the Kreg Accu-Cut, both available at Lowe’s. They’re very similar products, although the Accu-Cut is likely a better value because it handles cuts up to 48″ rather than the 24″ limitation of the Rip-Cut. All you need is a circular saw (a lot cheaper and easier to store than a table saw!), and you’re off! I love it because if I need to be mobile for a job, I don’t have to lug a table saw around. I have an older version of this Hitachi circular saw, although I’d probably go cordless if I were buying new!

STEP 5: DRILL YOUR SHELF PIN HOLES

If you want adjustable shelves in your finished cabinets (highly recommended!), now is a good time to drill out the holes for the shelf pins! This might sound difficult. I promise it is not with the Kreg Adjustable Shelf Pin Drilling Jig. This thing makes it SO simple—using a special drill bit that will stop at the exact right depth with perfect spacing. I used an off-cut piece of plywood as a guide to where I should start drilling my pin holes—you generally don’t need a shelf to adjust lower than about a foot above the bottom of the cabinet, but of course you can customize to your heart’s content. The jig is designed to work equally well whether you drill the holes before assembly, or want to retrofit them into an existing and/or already assembled cabinet (hello, easy upgrade to cabinets with fixed shelves!). It’s a great little tool.

STEP 6: ASSEMBLE THE CARCASSES! (also the title of my memoir)

Like I said—a million ways to do it, and I chose the easiest of the easy. One of the guys in the book said it was OK so I ran with it. While I could have built a few really big cabinets rather than 11 individual carcasses, I also needed to be able to work in the limited space of my kitchen and be able to move the carcasses around by myself. So. READY FOR THIS? It’s literally just making a box. You can make a box. I can make a box. Boxes for all! Even within this so-easy-I-hesitate-to-call-it-a-method, you have lots of options for exactly how to do it. I’ve seen a lot of people use the Kreg pocket screw system for this, but I think this way is easier and just as good if you don’t really need hidden fasteners.

First, apply wood glue to the edges of plywood where joints will be. Be generous!

Using a finish or brad nailer fitted with nails around 1.25″ (you could adjust up or down if you have something else around, just as long as it’s at least 1″), tack your joints together. Maybe 2-3 nails on each joint. These are JUST to keep things in place temporarily while you construct your box. A pneumatic gun (mine is no longer available, but this one is similar!) is extremely easy to use and control, and quite precise, so you can keep things aligned properly with one hand and fasten with the other. Use a carpenter’s square to check for squareness.

With the box assembled with glue and nails, use a 1/8″ drill bit to pre-drill a few holes along the joints, where you just nailed. Aim for every 8″ or so—you don’t have to be super exact.

Using 1.5″ (again, you can adjust a little up or down—I have an enormous container of miscellaneous screws I mined for this special occasion!) #8 coarse-thread drywall screws, drive screws into your pre-drilled holes. You should be able to feel them catch and they will easily sink below the outer layer of veneer. If they don’t, swap for a longer screw and try again. You may notice the joints tighten a bit, squeezing glue out of the joint.

I love drywall screws for this. They’re very strong, very cheap, and don’t tend to strip like a wood screw does. Coarse thread is the key!

Using a damp cloth, wipe away any excess glue. Remember to check again in a few minutes to see if glue is dripping or pooling anywhere.

STEP 7: DRY FIT!

With the carcasses assembled, I did a dry fit just to make sure I hadn’t really screwed anything up. All good!

If I may, for a second. My new chop saw. It’s awesome. I really needed a new chop saw, and then mine broke, and then I really needed a new chop saw, and I (Lowe’s) stepped it all the way up with the DeWalt 12-in sliding compound miter saw, and it is a DREAM. I’ve never had a chop saw this large or powerful, but I’ve worked with them, and making larger cuts makes a huge difference particularly on miters. Even at 90 degrees, my busted chop saw made a crosscut of less than 6″, and this one can cut 14″! This was so helpful for parts of the frames, shelves, face-frames—oh man I’m so glad to have it. Now it needs a shop space to live in! I do have to transport tools around kind of a lot, though, so while this is overkill for a small job, it’s also not so bad to close down and throw in the trunk, weighing in at 56 pounds. I’ll stop going on about my new toy now; thank you for indulging me. Let me know if you have questions.

STEP 8: ASSEMBLE THE BACKING!

At the top of each cabinet in the back, I used a piece of 1×3 cut to the interior width of the carcass, glued/nailed/screwed from the sides and the top, just like the rest of the box. This helps keep the box square, and also provides a really easy way to hang the cabinets by just screwing that piece to the wall/framing members. For extra long cabinets, you may want to add an identical piece to the bottom and perhaps the middle. This is a great situation to use wood from the scrap pile. Renovation consumes so many materials and produces so much waste as it is, and it saves so much money when I can just run to the garage instead of to the store!

I chose traditional 2″ beadboard backing for my cabinets—one of those good old Victorian standbys that are, luckily, still readily available and affordable! For an even more affordable, simple solution, beaded plywood and beaded MDF made to mimic this is available, too! Personally I like the imperfections of using the real deal, but hey—you got options! You could also totally use 1/4″ or 1/2″ plywood for the backing which would be even easier. I think 1/4″ is more typical, but an actual woodworker friend of mine told me that he uses 1/2″—and builds his carcasses almost exactly like this, which made me feel very validated.

This beadboard from Lowe’s is sold in packs of 6 (covering about 14 square feet per pack), in either 8′ lengths or 32″, which is so convenient if you’re doing wainscoting under a chair rail! The quality is so-so—there tend to be a lot of knots, and it would be a good idea to pre-prime every board, which I skipped due to lack of self-control. I’m fine with painting it but I wouldn’t really consider it stain-grade, personally.

With your boards cut to size, apply wood glue around all the back edges of the carcass and secure the beadboard. I used 3/4″ brad nails (I have an old Craftsman brad nailer probably a lot like this one I bought forever ago that’s still going strong!), and because you’re fastening to the back of the carcass you can just face-nail the boards at the top and bottom rather than nail through the tongue as usual. The beadboard is only 5/16″ thick and very lightweight, so you don’t need to go nuts—a pneumatic stapler would likely do the trick, too. Glue and some brads—it’s like a craft project! Funsies!

You may need to rip the last piece to size, of course. The beadboard goes super fast. It’s very satisfying.

STEP 9: MAKE THE BASES!

Modern standard base cabinets have a 30-31″ high frame and a 4-5″ base to make the total height 36″ when accounting for the thickness of the countertop. I’m building mine to a finished height of 34″, simply because I can.

To assemble the bases, framing lumber is inexpensive and provides a nice stable base. Because I’m basically drowning in salvaged lumber from the house, I took the opportunity to yank some old studs out of the basement and use those. To account for uneven widths, I ripped them each on the table saw down to 3.5″—the actual measurement of the 4 in 2×4. Obviously skip this if you’re all FANCY and have brand new 2x4s like some kind of ARISTOCRAT.

I assembled the bases in 3 sections to make them easy to maneuver, and then screwed them together and to the walls once in place, shimming to account for the out-of-level floor.  I used 3.5″ deck screws for the frames because I had them.

STEP 10: INSTALL THE BASE CABINETS

Set the carcasses on the bases and attach them to each other, using a set of Kreg clamps to keep the faces flush and caracasses level with each other. I used 1.25″ Kreg coarse-thread screws to fasten them together at the front and back of the frames—three in the front and three in the back. Keeping the screw toward the front of the frame will keep them out of sight once the face frame is installed.

I discovered that my room was hugely out of square, so I also had shim the backs of the base cabinets as I went along so that the finished floor space would be square. I have big tile ambitions that will require squareness. With shims in place, I fastened the cabinets to the wall through that top rail with drywall screws.

STEP 11: INSTALL THE UPPERS!

The uppers were physically more difficult to hang, but the plywood walls really helped here because I could shoot a few finish nails through the hanging rails to hold the cabinets in place briefly. The finish nails allow some flex, so it was easier to fasten the cabinets together with their frames nice and flush before screwing them securely into the wall.

So, see that big crazy gap at the top between the two tall cabinets? I MESSED UP. MY CABINET WAS NOT SQUARE. ALWAYS CHECK FOR SQUARE, DUMMY. Me, not you. You’re smart. You always check for square.

I decided to hang it anyway. The gap will get covered by the face frame, and I didn’t drill the shelf pin holes yet, so the shelves would still be level. I’m not necessarily endorsing it, but it’s the choice I made. These are the moments (some projects have a lot of these moments) where I like to claim wabi-sabi. Do you know about wabi-sabi? It’s Japanese. It has to do with the beauty of imperfection. Bloggers really liked to talk about it a few years ago. I say it jokingly to excuse my flaws. I think it’s endlessly funny; mostly it’s very annoying. But. I do it anyway.

Now we can move on and not speak of it again. Even at this early stage, I have to say—the room feels HUGE! It’s bigger than a Manhattan kitchen! It’s more cabinets than in my current kitchen! Tools like SketchUp are great and all, but they aren’t nearly as fun as the real thing.

Also, hi Mekko. Smooth photobomb.

STEP 12: ASSEMBLE THE FACE FRAMES

I have seen lots of old cabinets. I have seen a lot of varying face frame dimensions, which is sort of liberating, but you want to be mindful of keeping good proportions. In this case, I consulted the 1920s built-ins in the other room and landed on a really bulky face-frame. On the lowers, the verticals are 2.5″ wide and the top rail is 2″, and all the wood is a full inch thick, otherwise known as 5/4″ lumber (as opposed to 1x, which is actually 3/4″ thick). The 3/4″ vs. 1″ difference is, admittedly, a small thing, but I prefer 1″ in a lot of cases for old house stuff. The thinner modern 3/4″ boards just don’t look the same! 3/4″ boards are much more readily available, though, and ideally you want to be working with good, straight and knot-free lumber—poplar is nice for a painted finish, clear pine, or even oak for a stain-grade or just a very snazzy cabinet.

For this, too, I used salvaged wood. This was a pain but I did it anyway, because I have a thing for overcomplicating and I like using up my supply so I feel less nuts. Because the wood was a rag-tag pile of old, old-ish, and kinda-new-but-not-new-new, I had to run it all through the planer to get it to even thicknesses—essential for face frames. With new wood, you’re probably safe to skip this step.

There are multiple ways to go about a face frame, so I thought I’d try two of them. The first way is to pre-assembled it using some kind of joinery—in this case, the Kreg pocket hole system, which is easy to use and people love. From there, you can glue and face-nail to the carcasses, or attach it with pocket screws pre-drilled into the outside of the carcasses. I like the glue and face-nail approach because it’s easy.

Part of the goal here is to make the cabinets appear as one substantial unit rather than individual boxes, so a pre-assembled face frame can get rather large and unwieldy—getting the one for the two big uppers into position was actually kind of difficult, and I felt like maybe this approach wasn’t worth it.

So for the rest of the cabinets, I assembled the face-frames piece by piece, glueing and nailing them directly to the carcasses, being careful to maintain evenly sized (AND SQUARE) openings for the doors. With bulky stiles like this, you could also opt to make the carcasses a little smaller and use spacers between them, so that the face-frame only overlaps the interior of the cabinet by about a 1/4″. For a soft-close hidden hinge, that would definitely be the better approach, but my hinges will be attached to the face frame itself so it doesn’t really matter. I decided I’d rather keep the interior space in the cabinets.

If that top rail of the face frame up at the ceiling looks a little bulky, by the way, it’s because part of it will be covered with a simple crown—this one, I think!

The bottom rail, where the cabinet meets the floor, is going to be flush with the face-frames (like in my friend’s kitchen!), but I think it will be better to install that once the flooring is in, so I’m holding off. I’ll have to shim out the 2×4 bases for that, which isn’t such a big deal. Ideally they would be the same depth as the carcass already but I didn’t realize how far I’d be shimming the cabinets to make the room square. I’ll also finish off the big cabinet next to the fridge once the countertop goes in—I have to decide whether I want the backsplash to wrap the sides or just be more painted wood. Decisions!

STEP 13: BUILD AND INSTALL THE SHELVES!

I found it pretty equally easy to drill the shelf pin holes before assembly and after, but I think I prefer to do it after because seeing the cabinets installed gives me a better sense of where I’ll actually want adjustable shelving. Since the Kreg shelf pin drilling jig is only 6 holes, they include that chrome piece you see in the bottom hole, which allows you to just move the jig up, insert that pin into the top hole of the line you just drilled, and drill 5 more. And so on! Perfect spacing!

To construct the shelves, you can make this easy or you can make this complicated. I chose both.

One approach: For the tall upper cabinets, I planned for glass doors so it matters more what the shelves look like—and again, 3/4″ thickness just looks too flimsy for my pain-in-the-butt tastes. To save some time and energy, I bought pine stair treads, which are a full inch thick, from Lowe’s and just cut them to size, keeping the bullnose for the front-facing edge.

Another approach: Use regular 1x lumber for shallower shelves.

Another approach: Cut 3/4″ plywood to size and use iron-on edge banding to finish off the front edge. Stain or paint.

Another approach (above): Cut 3/4″ plywood to 1″ shy of your desired depth, and then glue and face-nail a bullnosed piece of 1x OR 5/4″ to the front. Using 5/4″ will give the illusion of a thicker shelf, but make sure it doesn’t interfere with your shelf pins. I made the bullnose on my router table using a 1/2″ roundover bit. You could also just use a regular square piece of trim to fake the thickness, too, if the bullnose lifestyle isn’t for you.

STEP 14: PRIME, SAND, AND PREP FOR FILLER AND CAULK!

Because I was exceedingly lazy about pre-priming, I had to prime everything once assembled. There are a LOT of knots between the beadboard, the stair-treads-turned-shelves, and even the face-frames, so I opted to just prime EVERYTHING with Zinsser’s Shellac-base primer. I love this stuff. I find shellac primer by far the most effective for blocking bleed-through from the knots, and it goes on thin and dries VERY VERY fast, meaning I can get a lot done in a short period.

I like to prime and then give everything a light sanding—this, I think, is the key to a slick paint job. You know how sometimes, you can sand and sand and sand and the wood is still kind of…fuzzy? This takes care of that problem, because the primer will basically bind and harden all of the texture and fuzzies softer woods like pine have before painting, and then a light sanding takes it all off and leaves you with a silky smooth surface to accept your finish paint. It’s also best to pre-prime before applying caulk or fillers—both will hold up better when applied to a primed surface rather than raw wood.

Also. I really want to have the sink/countertop in before I commit to the tile and/or the paint color for the cabinets, but I can’t possibly be expected to live with all these empty cabinets until that comes to pass. GIMME THAT STORAGE. There’s also no reason I need the doors installed right now, except that they would help keep the interior contents of the cabinets from gathering dust. But having everything primed at least means it’s all easy to wipe down in the meantime!

OBVIOUSLY AND VERY CLEARLY there’s still a ways to go with this room, but it’s still going to be quite a process for all the elements to really come together. But can you…see it?! I’m SO HAPPY. For the first time in YEARS I’m able to have all the kitchen stuff IN THE KITCHEN PART OF THE HOUSE and it just feels so very civilized.

LOOK AT ALL MY STUFF! LOOK HOW THE VACUUM CLEANER HAS A HOME! MY CAKE STAND HAS A HOME! MY DENTED REFRIGERATOR HAS A HOME! I’m not completely sure how I want to arrange storage in that tall cabinet next to the fridge, so for now I hung some old track shelving in there which is a good start.

Hilariously, the microwave wound up being too deep for the cabinets I built specifically TO HOLD THE MICROWAVE. Doh! I realized it halfway through building the carcasses, and committed to just getting a new microwave when I’m ready to install the cabinet doors. For now, whatever. It’s a decade-old microwave I got from my friend Anna, so it’s OK. I’m a grown ass man. I can buy my own microwave I guess.

I’m sort of amazed by how much material is going into this room! The beadboard ceiling is installed but the walls aren’t, I need to install the crown, make all the doors, trim out the window and exterior doorway (the current door trim is 1 part of a 3 part built-up trim), trim out the entrance from the kitchen into the pantry (with a transom window!), install lighting, make a wood medallion for the ceiling fixture, have the sink and countertop fabricated and installed, figure out a backsplash, install the floor tile, paint everything…but getting to this place of basic functionality feels great. And did I mention huge?! I’m super pleased with how much function is getting packed into this less-than-60-square-foot space!

Oh, and by the way? This was also the last project at my house for 2018, and now we’re going to hop on over to…the cottage! It’s your moment, little house! So. Excited. I. Can’t. Even. We’ll circle back to this pantry when I have more to share!

Fall Checklist: DIY Spray Foam Insulation with Dow Froth-Pak!

This blog mini-series is a paid partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

If you’ve read the title of this post and are thinking it’s already winter, then meteorologically yes, you’d be correct. BUT NOT ACCORDING TO ASTRONOMY, which places the first day of winter on December 21st this year, so take that! We’ll now move forward with the premise that it’s still fall and I’m right on schedule with wrapping up a semi-gargantuan to-do list of time-sensitive projects I really wanted to accomplish before this winter—at which point I will…uh…keep working, but on different stuff. Fun stuff. I’m excited for this winter stuff.

So. Having taken care of some overdue work like overseeding my grass, planting shrubs, pressure washing filthy siding, securing my garage/personal lumber yard, and wrapping up the major outstanding work on the side of the house, I’m turning my attention back toward the inside of the house. And there was a pretty major, glaring issue that I’m a little ashamed to admit. Behold:

It’s literally been YEARS since we’ve talked about it, but maybe you remember this room above my kitchen? It’s been through a lot…maybe this will jog your memory? Behold, again:

When I bought this house, it had been divided into two apartments and this room served as the upstairs apartment’s kitchen. I wrote about the preliminary demo work all the way back in 2013…and then evidently didn’t mention it again except in the context of the exterior work which involved removing the door and the window and replacing them with two little casement windows—an approximation of what I think that back wall originally looked like.

Anyway. At some point in there, I gutted the whole room. Part of one wall had been lost early on to a plumbing issue. Another wall because of the new window arrangement. The rest of the walls and ceiling were a material probably installed in the 1930s called Celotex, which is generally used as a rigid insulation board rather than a finished wall surface, but I digress. It all had to go—nothing original left anyway. Unlike the rest of the house, this section is 1 1/2 story—meaning there’s no attic above this room, and no reason the ceiling can’t be vaulted up to the ridge. Sweet!

Except…that was approximately 3 years ago. And aside from becoming a dumping ground for random crap (what else do you do when your mom sends you boxes of stuff you thought had long since been disposed of from your childhood bedroom?), it’s just sat that way. A shell full of potential, but not even approaching the top of any priority list.

Do you spot a problem here? I’ll give you a big hint that’s literally in the title of the post: NO INSULATION. I LIVE IN UPSTATE NEW YORK, PEOPLE. HEAT IS EXPENSIVE AND IT GETS COLD COLD COLD. WHAT A BAD CHOICE.

Seeing as this uninsulated room also became an unheated room as a result of other work, and therefore basically a barn atop my kitchen, this has meant a frigid kitchen below and the necessity of a space heater up here in the winter to prevent the pipes from freezing, as my bathroom is on the other side of one of the walls. Lest you feel like that’s overkill, I initiated this program only after the pipes had already frozen.

Twice.

Now, I’m no energy efficiency expert (SURPRISE!), but this much I know. Hot air rises. Insulation keeps it from rising up and out of the house. I chose not to insulate between floors in my house (a subject of some debate in the renovation world), meaning that any heat from my kitchen/first floor rises up into this room, and then promptly out the walls/roof and away into the sky. You know that emoji of the flying stack of money? That’s kind of what I’ve come to picture emerging from my roofline around this time of year.

If you’ve worked on an old house, you’ve likely encountered the issue of insulation at one point or another. There are many options out there, each with their own pros and cons, but one that’s been gaining major traction for the last couple decades is closed-cell spray foam insulation. There are a lot of great things about it—it’s efficient, fairly quick to install, provides a vapor barrier, and even improves the structural rigidity of a building. That last aspect dovetails nicely with the fact that it fills irregular gaps and areas in an existing structure that might be difficult to access/fill with more traditional products like fiberglass bat. Old houses tend to have both weird areas like that and structural components that may not necessarily be a problem but also wouldn’t meet modern building standards, so the added structural strength—while it shouldn’t be relied upon to resolve an actual structural issue—is a nice bonus. To my knowledge, closed-cell spray foam application has always been the purview of professional installers, but now there’s an option for the ambitious homeowner or budding professional too! That’s me!

We are talking specifically about the Dow Froth-Pak system, available at Lowe’s! Right off the bat I want to make clear that this stuff is SERIOUS BUSINESS—while this post is intended to help others and share my experience, you absolutely must read the manual that comes with the kit, take all necessary precautions, and research anything you feel uneasy about before trying this at home. Don’t be stupid, basically. Let’s dive in.

When I first saw this product, I didn’t totally know what to make of it. Is it closed cell or open cell? Can someone like me even use it? Is it just a big version of those cans of Great Stuff? Can I do a whole room? A whole house? What is a board foot??! I will try to address all of these things, because there isn’t a ton of information online about it in one place.

EVALUATE YOUR PROJECT

So you’re thinking of using Dow Froth-Pak to meet an insulation need. There are a few things to consider.

  1. How much area are you trying to cover? My room is about 13′ x 16′, with a vaulted ceiling about 10′ at the peak. Two of those walls are exterior walls that need to be insulated, as well as the whole ceiling. I haven’t excluded windows in that calculation, which is my lazy way to round up when figuring out what I need plus accounting for some waste. I think this product is good for a situation like mine—where you need to do ONE room or ONE ceiling or something like that, or you want to seal up areas like where floor joists meet the rim joist over a foundation in an entire basement. If the project is bigger than that, I’d definitely recommend at least quoting the job with a professional spray foam installer—it may actually be less expensive than buying the amount of kits you’d have to buy, and obviously save you some serious, potentially hazardous work.
  2. Is there a product better suited to your needs? There are several compelling reasons to choose spray-foam insulation—but fiberglass bat, blown-in cellulose, or a number of other products may help bring costs down. In my case, I have irregularly spaced studs, meaning variably sized stud cavities, as well as a lot of weird shapes and angles  (due to post-and-beam construction and the vaulted ceiling) that would make installation of other products difficult. Obviously insulation works best when it achieves good coverage, and all of the irregularities with my framing would leave opportunities for lots of gaps and cracks with a product that can’t easily adapt to the shape of its space.
  3. Are you up for it? If you’re not one for following directions or reading warning labels, avoid this. It’s not technically difficult but it can be somewhat physically demanding and messy. You also need to be at the proper stage of your project—which is AFTER framing work (including adding nailers or furring!), rough electric and rough plumbing are done. If you aren’t ready to put up drywall, you aren’t ready for spray foam insulation.

CALCULATE THE AMOUNT OF PRODUCT YOU NEED

  1. Dow Froth-Pak is closed-cell insulation, created by combining the contents of two tanks. One difference between closed-cell and open-cell spray foam is the thickness you want to spray. Open-cell spray foam is less dense, so you can fill a stud cavity and cut away the excess before installing your finished walls. Closed-cell is denser (with a higher R-value) and ideally should be a bit recessed in the stud bay—it can be cut back, but it’s more difficult. The amount of product you need will depend on the thickness you want to achieve. Each inch of thickness creates about R-6. So two inches = R-12, three inches = R-18, and so on. Local building code may require a minimal R-value depending on where you’re installing—always check.
  2. Calculate your BOARD FEET. The Froth-Paks come in different sizes—to make it simple, let’s look at the Froth-Pak 210. The “210” refers to the number of board feet—which is a measure of volume, NOT surface area, but all you need to know to calculate it is the square footage of the areas you need to cover. It’s a simple calculation:

Length in inches x Width in inches  x Preferred depth of the spray foam in inches. Divide the result by 144.

So for example, an 8′ x 8′ wall with 3″ of foam would be:

96″ x 96″ x 3″ = 27,648 / 144 = 192 Board Feet

In other words, one Dow Froth-Pak 210 will provide about 3.25″ thickness of foam over an 8’x8′ wall.

AND THAT IS AS MUCH MATH AS I EVER WANT TO DO IN BLOG FORMAT. This is not a math blog. I’m sure those exist and I’m also sure I’m not interested.

I was hoping to get about 3 inches of spray foam on all exterior walls/ceilings, and my total board feet was about 1,350. Ideally I would have bought two Froth-Pak 650s and one Froth-Pak 210, but the 650 was out of stock so I bought all 210s instead. The product is the same, it’s just the amount in each kit that changes.

The total cost of that, by the way? A little over $1,800 clams. Add in various other supplies (we’ll get to that!) and it’s about $2,000 to insulate this room. To be honest I was excited to try the product and didn’t try to quote it out to a professional, so I can’t tell you how they compare cost-wise, but local labor prices can be all over the map so I’m not sure how helpful that would be anyway.

INSTALLING THE DOW FROTH-PAK FOAM INSULATION KIT

SO. With framing, furring (mostly just to compensate for old, uneven framing), and electric complete, it’s time to get down to it! Again—I AM NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE MANUAL. I’m just a guy with a dream of a warm house in January.

Step 1: Check the temperature of your tank contents—this threw me for a loop so I’m making it item 1. There is a small temperature gauge on the side of the tanks, and a cut-out on the front of the box so you can read it without even unpacking everything. The interior contents of the tanks need to be between 75-85 degrees for optimal performance/mixing. This is a two-part system, so dispensing the proper mix is essential, and the temperature affects that. 75-85 degrees is WARM! Just sitting in my house, the tanks were reading much too cold so I placed the whole box on top of my cast iron hot water radiators (which are toasty to the touch but nowhere near enough to burn you), making sure to check them every 20 minutes or so as the contents slowly warmed up. NOTE: Dow recommends use of a particular heat tape or heat blanket for this purpose. I didn’t have them. Again, don’t be stupid—this had the contents heating at a pace of about 5 degrees per hour, so it took a few hours. Heating too rapidly/aggressively could cause an explosion, you crazy thing!

Step 2: Prep! If you don’t want it to get covered in spray foam, mask it off—ideally with something you don’t mind throwing away at the end. I had some already used 6-mil plastic in the garage that I used to mask off the chimney, the baseboards, and the door to the room. If I had more I’d have used it on the floor, too, but I just had this tarp. You also want to seal off the work space from the rest of the house as well as you can, and ventilate it (I opened all the windows and had a good cross-breeze, but the manual goes into good detail). I used my Bostitch pneumatic staple gun (currently on sale for $40!!) to keep my masking in place—it was a bit easier to put it up when working alone, and more secure than tape. Contractor bags worked nicely for wrapping the collar ties, which will probably be cleaned up a little and left exposed.

Step 3: Put on your costume! Like I said—this is serious business. Spray foam is both extremely sticky when wet and all kinds of toxic, so this is not a place you want to skimp. That means a disposable full-body suit, full protective eyewear, chemical resistant gloves, and a full-face or half-mask air-purifying respirator—I used this 3M one from Lowe’s, fitted with these cartridges. Small tip I wish I had: cover the face of your goggles with clear packing tape that you can remove and replace as needed. Dried spray foam can be removed from glass with a razor blade, but goggles are plastic and overspray may accumulate and make it difficult to see, and the spray foam will not come off without scratching them up too much to be usable. A headlamp may be helpful for darker spaces—I love this rechargeable LED Craftsman one (also on sale!).

Step 4: Unbox your Froth-Pak kit, ensuring the temperature gauge is between 75-85 degrees. The room and surfaces to be sprayed don’t have to be that warm, just the interior contents of the tanks. Shake both tanks for 30-60 seconds. You can shake them individually or use the carrying handle to hold them above the ground and rock them back and forth.

Step 5: Open the top valves on both tanks COMPLETELY. It’s very important that both valves are entirely open to ensure a proper mix. You should see the chemicals move through the hoses as the valves are opened—one is clear and one is brown-ish.

Step 6: Using the packet provided, apply some petroleum jelly to the inside face of the dispenser. This is primarily if you plan to use the Froth-Pak over multiple sessions and need to keep the dispenser free of dried foam between uses.

Step 7: Insert the nozzle into the dispenser gun. The Froth-Pak comes with two nozzle shapes—a blue “fan” nozzle and a clear “cone” nozzle. For a situation like mine, the fan nozzle proved the most helpful in terms of creating an even spray across a large surface. Dow gives you lots of spare nozzles that you may or may not use—but after you’ve started with one, it has to be changed any time there’s more than 30 seconds between sprays because the product cures so quickly and any blockage could screw up the ratio of the two parts. When the nozzle is fully inserted, you should hear a click and the yellow nozzle ejector will be clamped down.

Step 8: Pointing the dispenser into a container like a trash can (I used the box it all came in), purge the lines for 5-10 seconds. Foam should dispense pretty quickly.

Step 9: Practice! TAKE THIS PART SERIOUSLY. It definitely takes some getting used to. Using whatever you have available (I had a scrap piece of sheetrock), practice applying the foam as you will on your surface. You want to stay perpendicular to the surface, at an even distance (6″-24″ away), moving at an even pace in a side to side stroke. ALSO. VERY IMPORTANT. The foam only cures properly (and safely) if the layer of expanded foam is 2 inches or less. It will expand 3-4 times its thickness, so you want an even 1/4″-1/2″ coverage while you spray.  Inconsistencies in your pace, distance, or angle will result in an uneven application—and it’s harder than it looks, I promise. Especially with all that gear on and the pace you kind of need to keep up.

Step 10: Check your practice area. About 1 minute after spraying, it should have fully expanded and dried to the touch. It’s fully cured in 5 minutes—which is kind of bonkers.

Step 11: Start spraying! At this point you’ll probably want to change your nozzle. Using all the knowledge in your brains and safety equipment on your body, get to work. Perpendicular to your surface. Even distance. Even pace. Side to side. 1/4″-1/2″ thickness. Don’t panic. Because the foam cures so quickly, you can apply additional layers within minutes to build up to your final thickness—it’s better to do several thin applications than a too-thick application . To ensure you don’t run out of nozzles, you want to work fairly quickly. Avoid applying foam over foam that was just sprayed and is in the process of curing, and avoid build-up of foam beyond the depth of the wall, as this will need to be removed later on. Each Froth-Pak 210 took me about 20-30 minutes to mix, get set up, and use. By the way, the foam will stick to a lot of things including rigid foam boards—which you can see were already installed on parts of the back wall, and I just sprayed right over them since there was plenty of space in the cavity. Those foam boards should be R-10 on their own.

Step 12: The tanks will become increasingly lightweight as the contents are dispensed, which makes them more likely to tip over as you move. I’d highly recommend having a helper for this job (also in full protective equipment) who can help ensure the tanks stay upright, move them while you work around the room, and help identify areas that need more applied. As the tanks are nearing empty, you will notice the pressure change (kind of a quick sputtering) and the foam may look slightly different (darker, more viscous). STOP IMMEDIATELY. This foam is the wrong ratio and will not expand/cure properly—don’t think you can squeeze just a little more out, because those tanks are DONE. RETIRED. NO MORE FOAM 4 U. The tanks should feel empty, although there might be a little more liquid in there you can hear. That’s OK. It’s still done. I promise.

Step 13: Do not. Think that. You can just. Throw these things away. I said it all dramatic like that so you read past the word “done” (see item 12.). The manual explains a whole easy-peasy but super duper important disposal protocol, which is in place so you don’t inadvertently cause an explosion. I have nothing new to add to that so just please make sure you read it and do it, ok?

SO. IT HAS COME TO PASS. The whole insulation process took about 4-5 hours start to finish (including the masking and prep, but the tanks had to heat up for longer beforehand), and I think the coverage was basically as advertised so I didn’t need additional tanks. I found the technique of getting an even coating fairly challenging (you can see areas that look good and areas that look…not so good)—I do feel like I improved throughout the process, but since my first coat wasn’t especially smooth I didn’t give myself the best foundation. Like with painting, small lumps become bigger and bigger lumps with each new coat.

I was a bit nervous about fumes, but I left the windows open for about 12 hours after finishing up and I really don’t notice a smell when I go in there! Like…at all? Maybe something faint that could also be my imagination? I can tell you the difference is like night and day, heat-wise. It hasn’t been there long enough to know how it affects my bills/consumption (and those two casement windows are still drafty as hell—another thing on the ole to-do), but the kitchen below feels warmer and suddenly this room is OK to be in! It’s 30 degrees out! The street noise is also much quieter, and the whole room is immediately so much BRIGHTER—which doesn’t really matter because it’ll all be covered, but it makes it so much easier to work in especially in the evening hours which is when I’m the most likely to tackle stuff.

SO MUCH EASIER, IN FACT, that now I’m like…am I finishing this room now? To be totally honest I’ve forced myself to kind of stay away from it for a long time now just because there are so many more pressing things (I SEE YOU, KITCHEN. I JUST CAN’T AFFORD YOU. I’M WORKING ON IT.)…but now that it’s to this point, and I feel like I know what I want to do, it’s pretty much just a bunch of carpentry I could chip away at? Little by little? With supplies I mostly already have? And then? I could? Have guests? Like a person? Who owns a rather large house? And lives? Alone?

Dare to dream.

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