All posts tagged: Thrifted & Scavenged

Here’s What the Living Room Looks Like Nowadays.

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Oh hi, Linus! What a little muppet. Can you believe that guy has been camping out with me for almost three years now? He’s the best thing in the world. FYI.

When I first posted about the renovated living room, I kind of mentioned that I didn’t feel like the room was looking all that great, as the extent of my decorating had been spending an hour or so the day before throwing a bunch of stuff into the room that I already owned. When you live in a perpetual renovation zone, just the novelty of being able to use a room is excitement enough…caring too much about what it looks like is kind of beside the point. And because my house still needs so much work, and the budget for it is always slimmer than it needs to be, it’s not like I have a bunch of cash lying around to buy beautiful things and make even the “finished” spaces look…well, finished.

Anyway. I’ve been doing some heavy-duty nesting and reorganizing and changing things around lately, as I’m now often alone in the house and allowed to do whatever the hell I want. Moment of awkward silence. Point is, I was looking around my living room the other day and realized it looks way more like a real room than last time I posted about it, so maybe it’s high time for a little update!

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First thing’s first…CHAIR. Newsflash: I have a womb chair now and it is officially the nicest thing in my house. And by thing, I mean glorified dog bed. Here, Mekko demonstrates how to use it. Thanks, Mekko!

So the story of this chair is one of bratty persuasion. At some point when I was in high school, my mother became fixated on buying a set of lounge chairs for her bedroom, and somehow I convinced her that a set of grey womb chairs were everything that she wanted. It probably goes without saying that in fact they were everything wanted, but she bought them all the same and then…DIDN’T LIKE THEM. I don’t get it either. She doesn’t find them comfortable.

I’ll say two things about that. The first is that I personally find this chair incredibly comfortable, and the second is that I have lots and lots of chairs in my life and admittedly very few of them are all that comfortable. What can I say? I love me a good-looking chair and like any good blogger, I will sacrifice comfort for beauty every time.

So the chairs sat in my parents’ bedroom until they moved, and then one went to the condo where it continues to be hated and the other one went to fester in a storage facility. This is what my family does as a way to avoid dealing with getting rid of stuff, which is one of their finer qualities IMO. In any case, it seemed like an awful shame to let this chair sit piled atop other stuff and wrapped in cellophane, so when I was home for Passover recently I did the selfless thing and brought it home with me.

Sorry, Mom! This is what you get for having a gay son. Endless decorating advice about expensive items that said son will later convince you to bequeath to him. I’m not proud.

OK, I’m kind of proud.

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Working our way around in no particular order: LAMP. I love this lamp. It’s the IKEA 365 BRASA floor lamp, which I hate to tell you is discontinued! Ugh. I think it retailed for $120 which was always too spendy for me, but the whole thing is super nice powder-coated steel and just so, so well made. I’ve loved it for years! This was a floor model and I found it in the as-is section, and it took me about 0.0 seconds to snatch it up before the opportunity would never present again. I think it was marked down something like 40%.

So sad. It’s such a great lamp.

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You might have noticed in the first shot that I moved my stupid little DIY bench into here and called it a coffee table! It functions well as both and I like it a surprising amount, especially because it saves me from feeling like I have to buy a coffee table. Coffee tables are maybe the hardest thing to find, am I right? It’s like they’re all ugly or the wrong height or the wrong length or the wrong everything. Or a billion dollars.

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Underneath the coffee table is a rug! A rug that I bought! I got a little overly excited at an auction recently and snagged this rug for $150! TOTALLY worth it in my book. Antique rugs like this are so hard to find at an affordable price. The pictures don’t really show how damaged this rug is in spots, which I’m sure is why the price didn’t go higher, but I don’t really care about that. The majority of the damage is in the middle region and that’s mainly under the coffee table, so I just ignore it. I do have to invest in a pad for underneath but that’s more of a “note to self” than something you need to be concerned about.

I love it a whole lot. It’s still kind of under-sized for this room, but not as under-sized as the one in the old pictures, so at least I’m moving in the right direction. This room can handle an 8×10 so I’ll probably be on the prowl for one for the rest of my life.

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Also found at the same auction: PIANO BENCH. I’m still feeling pretty smug about this one. The piano came with the house and is from the 1920s or so, but whatever bench it had was gone, unfortunately, and the piano looks kind of strange sitting without a bench. I think this bench cost me 30 bucks and I feel like you’d NEVER think I just bought it! That’s all I really wanted…I didn’t want to make some kind of feature out of the piano bench—just find something that fit with the piano. The piano is Kroeger and the bench is Steinway so I know they aren’t really a match, but the mahogany finish is almost an exact match and even the shape of the legs is similar, so I feel like I did pretty good.

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On top of the piano I plopped a Stag Head Fern, which I love and am trying not to kill. This room needed some plant life so I’m glad it has some now.

Please don’t die, fern. I can’t take that level of emotional turmoil right now.

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I keep futzing with the mantel (why is mantel styling so impossible for me?), but I LOVE this ridiculous/scary/amazing lady portrait. She’s HUGE and I found her in the trash a while ago in Brooklyn! The TRASH! Max always hated her so she was never allowed outside of my hoarding room, but one of the upsides to this whole break-up thingy is that now I can display all of my creepy art without consequences. Nothing says “single and sane” like this display, am I right?

SOMEBODY LOVE ME

I think she was a student art piece and the back of the canvas indicates that a boy named Brett painted her. Are you out there, Brett? Thank you for throwing your art away so that it could come live in my home. She brings me so much pleasure and joy on a daily/hourly/minutely basis.

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Controversial art aside, it’s come a long way from this, right? I love hanging out in this room.

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Oh, Mekko. You gorgeous pink moody thing. Keep living the life of endless lounging and leisure. I’ll try to finish more rooms for you.

Sink for the Cottage Half Bath!

OOF. I’ve been working on several different posts and a million other things and I can’t seem to get anything done. I’m all over the place. So…hi, folks! Long time no see. Missed ya.

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The big news today? Not that big. I bought another old sink. My life is basically non-stop action and excitement with a heaping scoop of filth thrown in for fun.

I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for a cute cast iron sink to go down in the half-bath on the first floor of the cottage, and this one fit the bill! It’s probably from the 40s or early 50s, super heavy, and—despite the grime and filth, in excellent shape! I love the simple lines (which to me don’t really scream any particular era—just simple and classic), and the flat section at the top where it’ll meet the wall seems like a perfect spot for a bottle of hand soap and a cup for toothbrushes or whatever. It’s a pretty small bathroom, so I like that this particular sink has that little storage opportunity built-in. I’ll still put in some kind of cabinet or shelving or a medicine cabinet or something, but it’s a start!

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The best part? BOOM. $25 dollars. This entire project has definitely come with some unexpected costs, so saving money here and there on stuff like this really helps keep the budget more in check.

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There’s a few things to think about when buying vintage enameled cast iron fixtures, and the first is really to inspect the condition of the enamel. I don’t mind a little etching and minor staining (which can often be improved with non-abrasive cleaners or plain old white vinegar), but major chips, cracks, or areas of damage—especially where water will hit—will rust and degenerate over time.

Damaged enamel doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good buy, especially if the shape is super unique or something, but all of the repair solutions that I know about will never really measure up to an original enameled coating. There are epoxy-type patching compounds you can buy at most home improvement stores, which you basically spread on, let dry, and sand smooth, but the finish is never going to look seamless or perfect—it’ll just insulate the cast iron from further rusting. You can also get stuff like this reglazed professionally (typically they come to you, mask everything off, and spray a new coating on the fixtures), which looks nice at first but isn’t all that durable—you generally have to have it redone about once a decade or so, and it scratches and chips fairly easily in the meantime. The most durable solution I know of is sandblasting and powder-coating. In this process, the enamel finish is blasted off until the cast iron is bare, and then the entire thing can be powder-coated, which is essentially a very tough, durable paint treatment that can be done in a million different colors. It also tends to be pretty affordable, but prices vary. That’s the plan for the downstairs bathtub in my house, since it’s in super solid shape overall but the enamel has seen much better days, and I was quoted $300 to have the work done…which is much less than I’d spend on a brand new tub! This is the same process that my pal Anna had done on her bathroom fixtures, a radiator, and some exterior metal work, and all of them have held up beautifully!

I don’t know of a way to actually have something completely re-enameled (anyone?), though, so the best thing is really to try to find fixtures that don’t need this kind of repair work in the first place. It also keeps costs down, duh-sies. This sink is in great shape, so a little scrubbing should take care of it!

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The second thing to think about is the metal cleat that the sink hangs off of. If you’re installing one of these bad boys, bear in mind that they are HEAVY mo-fos and you may have to open your wall and install some wood blocking for the cleat to screw into. Anyway, often vintage sinks get separated from their original cleat. I bought this sink from the Historic Albany Foundation, which is a fun salvage place with good stuff at great prices, and luckily for me they had a big bin of these cleats to peruse, so it was just a matter of finding one that fit! If your sink is still in production (like the Kohler sink I bought a while ago), you may be able to just order the cleat directly from the manufacturer, and if you’re really in a bind, lots of people get them custom-made by a metal shop for a fairly nominal cost. Anyway, there are options! If you love the sink, don’t fret if it doesn’t have the cleat.

By the way, the nice man at the salvage place told me that often you’re better off with a steel cleat than a cast iron one. Cast iron becomes more brittle over time, so sometimes the cleats are cracked or broken either prior to or during installation. I know that rusty little thing looks like bad news, but it’s very solid and I was assured should hold everything just fine.

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Lastly, the taps! As much as I don’t really mind double taps on old sinks, especially for a half-bath, I gotta say I do prefer a single faucet. Often cast iron sinks that are originally made with double taps can be elegantly converted (Anna did this in her bathroom, too), but the cost of the plumbing work and the faucet/knobs/escutcheons definitely adds a few hundred dollars to the price. So potentially your cheap $25 sink really becomes a $300-$400 sink, which is still fine, but maybe not the kind of deal you thought it was.

ANYWAY, I know this thing looks REALLY gross, but I’m guessing some Barkeeper’s Friend and some TLC will clean it up. Maybe a few new little parts, too, but hopefully that won’t be a big deal. The faceted shape of that little faucet is so cute, though, right? I like it.

I’m so glad to report that—I THINK HOPE AND PRAY—winter is pretty much done. There’s still snow on the ground, but it’s melting, and hopefully it won’t be too long before I can really get back to work on the cottage. The lack of heat (or a gas line!) really kind of messed everything up for a few months, but now that we’re more or less out of the danger zone of pipes freezing and stuff, I’m excited to get back in there! Now that things have stalled and dragged out for so long, it’s going to be super exciting to start making real progress again and whipping this place into shape!

Weekend Thrifty Finds!

It’s been a while since we did a good old “look, here’s some crap I bought!” post, hasn’t it? It’s a crying shame.

Well. In case you started reading this blog less than 10 minutes ago and don’t know what I’m all about, first of all—welcome. Second of all, you should know I like to shop. I like to shop but I don’t like to spend a lot of money, so at some point in my life I really embraced that the way to fulfill both of these goals was to shop for secondhand stuff. eBay, Craigslist, consignment shops, weird barns full of antiques, thrift stores, the curb on trash night, auctions, salvage shops…I love them all equally and for different reasons. I’m an equal-opportunity crap collector. Admittedly a part of the appeal of doing freelance design work is that I get to spend more time satisfying these urges, except I get to buy things with other people’s money and for other people’s houses. Even though I end up wanting to keep everything. Life is one big struggle.

I’ve been trying to slow my roll on the thrifty front lately for two reasons:

1. We are running out of space, and it makes me feel like a crazy person. Our basement has extra furniture. The room above our kitchen? Packed. There’s furniture in the garage and furniture in the big, un-renovated living room, and there’s just no way we’re going to use it all—this much is clear. Of course, I maintain that we will use some of it, and therefore we should keep it around until the house is done, at which point I’ll need to find a new excuse to hoard. A client might need it! The cottage might need it for staging! And so on. I’m great at justifying my crap.

2. Buying cheap stuff is only cheap until you buy a lot of it, at which point it becomes…not so cheap. And I’m a little cash-strapped right now between this stupid house and this stupid cottage and being in between freelance gigs the heat bills on our house ain’t cheap and…ya know. Should probably stop buying things that aren’t human food and/or dog food.

BUT SOMETIMES YOU CAN’T HELP IT. SOMETIMES A FRIEND (who you invited) DRIVES YOU TO A PLACE (because you specifically asked him to) AND SHOWS YOU NICE THINGS (which you reasonably guessed would be there in the first place) AND YOU’RE FORCED TO BUY THEM (because otherwise you might feel sad later on that you didn’t).

Ugh. So here’s some shit I bought because the choice was basically between these vintage items and everlasting regret and remorse.

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So, this MIRROR. Or maybe I should call it a “mirror”? Lord knows I do not need more mirrors. My main weaknesses in life are old mirrors, old rugs, old lighting, and old chairs. Also, old houses and old dogs. I have a lot of mirrors and I love them all but I’m especially into this one, and at $60 I felt like I owed it to myself (I did not) to take it home and make me so happy (it did). This beige colored parts you’re seeing, by the way, are just the wall behind the glass, where the reflective foil has just completely worn away and disappeared over the years.

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My major rules with mirrors are these:

1. There has to be something interesting about the frame. If you only like the shape of the frame, you can always paint it, but I like my frames to have some weird Victorian detailing like the one in the office or an interesting shape like the one over our apartment’s mantel, or just have a great patina of wear like the one hanging out in the kitchen. I love the shape and the tone of the wood on this guy, so it’s a winner.

2. There has to be something good about the glass. New mirror glass, even if it’s in an old frame? Kind of boring, usually not worth it. Extra points for a bevelled edge, but not necessary. My real weakness is when the foil backing that makes the mirror reflective starts to disintegrate over time, leaving what some would consider “damage.” That’s just patina, folks! As long as the glass isn’t shattered, I pretty much feel like the “worse” shape it’s in, the better! This guy ranks pretty highly, to the point that it barely even functions as a mirror anymore. You can get the basic idea of looking at a human figure, but that’s about it. It’s oddly flattering. LOVE.

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Also, it tells me what to do at night. Shhhhh.

What else did I buy, you ask? I’ll tell you.

coasters

For a while now, I’ve been on the hunt for some old-school glass furniture coasters. You can still buy these new and there’s a nice selection of vintage on eBay, but for some reason I was stubborn and wanted to just stumble upon a bunch of them in a junk shop or something. For what, I’m not even really sure, but I figure they have to come in handy and they just look a billion times more awesome than a shim or a block of wood or whatever the other alternatives are.

Anyway, I bought 8 in total! The shopkeeper wanted $2 a piece for them (I had to hunt them out of a huge bin of old Atlas jar lids), which was fine I guess. 4 of them are smaller and four are bigger—these are the bigger ones pictured above. I probably should have taken another photo after I washed them because they no longer look like a gunky mess, but sometimes I forget stuff.

Man, I really wish I knew about these back when I bought my first credenza that sat on a very sloped floor, or then when I bought my second credenza that also sat on a very sloped floor. These would have been a much easier and more attractive solution to leveling those things out. Oops! Live and learn.

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Anyway, we had two radiators that needed to be shimmed under the front two legs. Radiators are really designed to be most effective when sitting level, which isn’t always easy on floors that have some slant to them. Luckily the floors in our house are very level for the most part, but there are areas where they do slant downward away from exterior walls for about 1 foot into the room and then more or less level out. Prior to this discovery, the radiators had been sitting on some unattractive old pieces of scrap wood…but now….

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I put the four smaller ones to work under those two radiators, and they look a billion times better! I know that sounds like a bad idea (incredibly heavy objects on top of pieces of glass…), but it seems totally fine and stable and unlikely to cause any problems. So the front of the radiators have been shimmed up a bit, and…I love these things. They’re so pretty! Getting them under the feet was a little challenging, just because the radiator did need to be lifted/rocked a fraction of an inch to get the coasters under the feet. You do have a little play with these pipes, in my experience, though not a ton, so you want to be careful and watch your unions once everything is settled. One of the radiators did develop a small, slow leak at the union after we persuaded the coaster in, but a couple turns on my pipe wrench was all it needed to seal itself up again. No leaks + level radiators + attractive shims = success!

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Oh, let’s see, what else…OH RIGHT THIS LIGHT. I love this thing. It definitely bears a strong resemblance to the large Alabax light from Schoolhouse Electric, except this one is vintage and came out of a prison! At least that’s what the sellers told me. Clearly I have a thing for stuff in my house having dark, creepy pasts. And at $85 vs. $139 + shipping for the new Schoolhouse version, the price was decent.

I think this guy is going to hang in the back of the first floor hallway. We had an overheat light added there since it was SO dark back in that area of the house, but I don’t want to make it too conspicuous. The big nice chandelier with the big fancy ceiling medallion will go at the front of the hallway, where the front door is, but I don’t want to make a big production of a light fixture in this spot. Something small and inconspicuous (but pretty, duh) has been what I’ve been on the hunt for, and I think this fits the bill perfectly. I can’t wait to finally paint out that space and get this thing hung up! It’s already been freshly rewired, too, which saves me a little work.

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Lastly, I picked up this little assortment of pretty porcelain plumbing escutcheons! You see these a lot in old houses with old plumbing, but they should be easy to incorporate in new plumbing, too. The ones with the little holes are for supply lines, like on a sink, and the bigger one should work for a waste line on a sink.

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They need a little work in terms of stripping the paint off and cleaning them up a bit, but I love them! I think I’m going to be greedy and save these two more elaborate ones for the bathroom in my own house, but I’m planning to put the smaller/simpler ones in the bathrooms in Bluestone Cottage. I know I could just as easily go buy some cheap stock chrome ones at Lowe’s or something, but this will just take it up a notch—and at $5 a pop, that seems entirely worth it. It’s the little details that will make these brand-new-but-aspiring-to-look-kind-of-original spaces look appropriately old, so I’m really psyched to see them in place…even if my plumber is going to think I’m crazier than he already does. He loves me for it, and I love him for putting up with me. Bless his beautiful plumber heart.

Kohler Brockway Sink in the Cottage Bathroom!

Once in a while, one of the really awesome benefits of having this blog is that it’s kind of like I have more eyes thrifting for me. This kind of thing is a relatively rare occurrence—I’m not that fancy—but I do feel extra super lucky when I get an email or a tweet or a comment from a reader letting me know that they spotted this or that in a thrift store or on eBay or Craigslist and thought I might be interested.

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about that nice rosewood credenza that a very kind and neighborly reader named Priscilla found and put on hold for me at a thrift store. That was really awesome when that happened. Priscilla has been kind enough to text me every now and then if she see’s something while she’s out and about…and girlfriend just went and did it AGAIN.

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So one day while I was busy working on the living room at my house, Priscilla texted me a picture of this 3-foot wide enameled cast iron double sink over at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, asking if I wanted it since she couldn’t think of a reason to buy it herself. I don’t need it for my house, and it didn’t really fit into the cottage plan either, but come on…that’s a good-looking sink! Originally I was planning on doing some kind of double vanity/double sink situation in the full bath at the cottage, but after thinking it over for a few minutes and looking at a few pictures of this model in use, I started to get really excited about using this instead. The holes accommodate 2 separate faucets, so it has the functionality of double sinks but the simplicity and glamor of a single basin. What’s not to love?

I don’t know how old this particular sink is, but it’s actually still in production! It’s made by Kohler and is called the Brockway—looks like it retails for between about $1,200-$1,600, depending on the source. Mine was only $175! Such a score. It didn’t come with faucets, mounting hardware, or the soap dish that goes in the middle, so that’ll add a few hundred dollars, but that’s OK—it can all be ordered separately from Kohler, which is really nice. I don’t have the budget that would allow for buying this kind of thing new, so it’s exciting to be able to put something so high-quality in this house that will hopefully stay with it for a long, long time.

This sink feels especially meaningful because back in October, Kohler held a small conference for bloggers at their headquarters in Kohler, Wisconsin, which I had the pleasure of attending! Admittedly, I went into the trip knowing next to nothing about Kohler as a company (other than that they made my toilet, which I like…), but I had such an appreciation for them by the time I left. What really struck me was how Kohler has balanced almost 150 years of design innovation (they started by making enameled cast iron bathtubs in 1873!) with a real respect for historic styles and production methods—something that seems really out of the ordinary for such a large, international company.

We got to spend some time in a museum area of one of the Kohler buildings, and while it was interesting to see how much things have changed over almost 150 years in business, it was even more amazing to see how much has stayed the same. They still produce almost everything out of their Wisconsin factories, including so many classic styles that are really nicely suited to historic renovations. It made me so happy to see all that stuff right alongside their sleeker, more modern designs. On the last day, we even got to tour the factories, and I think the highlight for a lot of us was seeing the cast iron goods being made. In my admittedly nerdy sort of way, I like having this sink because I’ve seen firsthand exactly how it was made…coming out of the oven glowing red-hot, hot enough to melt the powdered glass particles that get sprayed on it to form the enameled surface…SO COOL. I wish I could go back, like, once a month.

ANYWAY. Want to take a look at how great this sink looks in a bathroom? Yeah, I do too.

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From Country Living / Photos by Max Kim-Bee (click photo for link)

I really like this picture because it’s so much of what I can envision for the cottage bathroom! I’ve been thinking a lot about plank walls for the entire upstairs space, including parts of the bathroom that wouldn’t be tiled. The reclaimed wood shelf, the mirror, the sconce situation…it’s all just so nice!

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From House Beautiful / Photo by Alec Hemer (click photo for link)

What’s better than one double sink? TWO DOUBLE SINKS. So much sink action. And oh hey look, more plank walls! And a plank ceiling! And…BRASS. I’m admittedly not a huge fan of the Cannock faucet that’s recommended to go with the sink (maybe I’d like it more in real life?), but I do really like these, and the brass factor just puts it over the top. I’ve never actually seen all-brass traps and supply lines in the real world, but damn. That looks great. Plumbing fantasies.

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From Remodelista / Photo by Sean Slattery (click photo for link)

Hot DAMN, this bathroom. Sooooooo gooooooood. I sort of laughed when I saw this photo because the subway tiles and black hex floor tiles are also things I’ve been mentally tossing around for the cottage bathroom. Although my tiles would be ceramic and these look to be marble, but whatever. Oh, and I see you, skinny beautiful black radiator. And those cabinets. And that gorgeous tub. GUH. But the sink looks amazing, right? Right. It’s such a versatile piece.

Looking at these fancy bathrooms makes going to my bathroom feel kind of like taking a dump in a porta potty on a hot summer day, but I don’t even care.

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So there. Obviously this bathroom has a ways to go before this sink can have its moment to shine, but it feels motivating to have it now, while I still have some time to plan. It makes me so excited to see it come together! Now to just find myself a tub…

Building the Faux Fireplace!

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Since I’ve been dealing with something of a forced hiatus from working on the cottage due to the gas/heat issues, I’ve taken the opportunity to refocus on my own renovation. Remember that? A lot of people in my life have assumed that since I’ve taken on a whole other renovation, my own house must be close to completion. VERY FALSE. I could try to list all the things I still need to do, but it would take you like three days to read and give me a panic attack, so just take my word for it. It’s a lot.

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I’ve talked before about the room at the front of our house, which was likely originally a parlor. It’s the first room t0 the right when you walk in the front door (you can look at a floor plan here), and essentially rounds out the side of this floor I’ve been working on since we bought the house—first with the kitchen, then the laundry room, then the dining room. A while ago, Max and I decided that this room would be a study/library/office type space (since there’s a much larger living room right across the hall), but we’ve since sort of switched gears on that. Realistically, the “big living room” is probably a couple years off—even though I’m dying to get to it, it’s low on the priority list. I don’t want to wait that long to have some kind of space to sit and hang out and entertain, though, so I want this to be the living room for now! It’ll still house the books (or most of them, anyway), but also a couch and a couple chairs and stuff like that. I’ve been working hard to get it done-ish before the cottage drags me back into its clutches.

ANYWAY. I’ve talked about this before, but one of my big conundrums with this room was the feeling that there was something missing. The wall that the room shares with the dining room is bumped-out, and there’s this narrow/shallow little closet on the side that I’ve been informed is called a chimney cupboard, and would have been used for wood storage and whatnot. You can kind of tell from the crappy picture above (taken at our first walk-through) that there’s a large patch in the floor in front of this wall, and that the baseboard ends abruptly.

I’m not sure exactly what was here originally, but I have a couple reasonable guesses. There’s a chimney behind the wall (which has since been dismantled below the roof line, so doesn’t actually do anything), and a vent hole up near the ceiling. The floor patch indicates that there was some kind of stone hearth set into the floor here, and likely a wood-burning stove sitting on top of that. Our house was built around 1865, and since radiators didn’t come into use until the end of the century (and could have been installed here as late as the 1920s, perhaps), wood stoves would have been the original heat source. As for a mantel, it’s anyone’s guess. There’s a beautiful marble one in the big living room, but whatever used to live on this wall has been gone for a long time.

Given all of this, I had this big idea. Why not put something back in that spot? Even if it didn’t actually serve a functional purpose, a proper-looking fireplace would go a long way toward anchoring the room and providing some nice ambiance. The fireplace in our apartment is purely ornamental, but just the fact that it’s there gives the room so much. So that is what I set out to do. Fake fireplace plan: a-go.

A quick word about the fakey-ness of it all: I feel so weird about this kind of thing! I sort of think of myself as a modernist renovating an old house, and this kind of thing feels distinctly not-modernist. It’s the same feeling I get about putting up a bunch of foam ceiling medallions (which I’ve faux-aged on top of it!) or trying to recreate original molding work like I did in the laundry room. What’s so wrong with new work looking…new? Isn’t there something much more honest and authentic about just embracing all the original detail that does remain in this house, and allowing the new work and materials to just be what they are? I don’t know. I think about it a lot. But at the end of the day, I guess I want the house to seem more impeccably preserved than it actually is, for better or worse. So I’m going with it!

atjohnshouse

SO, now that I’ve written like 700 words and bored you to tears, let’s get into how this faux-fireplace party went down. It started with this mantel. Back in MAY. Yeah, this took a while from start to finish. My wonderful and insanely talented friend, John, ripped this mantel out of his house during his own renovation, but had stashed it in his basement instead of tossing it. His house was built in 1723, and this mantel was fabricated and added in the 1920s. I’d say John’s renovation sensibility is a bit more purist than mine, so he worked with a woodworker to custom build a more period-accurate mantel to replace this one (which is gorgeous, by the way). So anyway…John had a mantel, I needed a mantel, John didn’t want any money for it, I like free things…it worked out.

wallopeneduo

When I got the mantel home, I opened up the part of the wall where the old mantel would have theoretically been, wondering if I’d find a firebox or just the chimney. Just the chimney! Since there wasn’t any depth to work with inside the wall, whatever would go on the inside of the mantel had to be essentially flush with the wall. Hmmm. Hmmmmmmm.

mantelinplaceish

I dragged the mantel into place-ish (Linus assisted), just to get a sense of how it would look and feel. Even though this thing is quite a bit newer than my house, I feel like it plays really nicely with our moldings. As you can tell from the floor patch, it’s about a foot or so wider than what was here originally, which is something I sort of fretted over before deciding to just go with. I really didn’t want to get into trying to hack the mantel down to the “right” size (I liked the proportions of it as-is), and I really liked the idea of using this mantel in particular because I had it, I didn’t have to pay for it, and I liked the whole story behind it. Something new or salvaged just wouldn’t have held the same meaning to me.

hearthcutout

So, onwards! I removed the old patch job with no real plan about what was to go in its place, but sometimes you just need to dive in and figure it out later.

guttedwall

Unfortunately, this plaster wall was just beyond the point of trying to salvage. The plaster had separated a lot from the lath, it had some very significant cracks, and had undergone some failed repair attempts over the years with lots and lots of joint compound but nothing (like mesh tape, plaster buttons, or screening) to stabilize the plaster from further shifting. Even though I want to save as much of the original plaster walls in the house as possible, the best course of action here was to just start over, so that’s what I did!

lathshims

Since new 1/2″ drywall wouldn’t match the original depth of the plaster walls, I experimented with reusing the original lath strips, this time nailed directly onto the wall framing. I could have also just left all of the lath in place, but I’d already taken it down and this allowed me to still salvage the bulk of it for some other use down the road. I have no idea what to do with all my lath, but I’ll come up with something!

drywallinplace

Putting up the new drywall was no big thing. Since the underlying framing wasn’t very smooth, the drywall wasn’t either—but I had a plan! I actually wanted it to be a little irregular to mimic the look of the other plaster walls.

drywalled

I used fiberglass mesh tape and joint compound to cover the seams and screw holes. You typically do three coats of joint compound with new drywall and then finish off with a fine sanding before paint.

skimcoatingwall

I wanted to experiment with getting more of an authentic plaster look, though, so I opted to skim-coat the entire wall with joint compound. I just used the pre-mixed all-purpose stuff, and I wasn’t too careful about it: I wanted the thickness of the skim-coat to vary slightly along the surface of the wall. In some places it’s barely there at all, and in some places it’s probably about 1/8″ thick.

skimcoatedwall

Here’s a terrible picture of the whole wall skim-coated. The whiter spots are where the joint compound is thinner and dried faster. It doesn’t look at all like a textured wall or anything—it’s just very very subtly uneven so that it doesn’t stand out as looking flat and new. I sanded it all before painting and it really is indistinguishable from the plaster. Yay!

marble

Ok, moving on…one of the big challenges was figuring out the material for the hearth. There were a few options here. Sometimes, like in our apartment fireplace, you’ll see a tiled hearth—but tile is tough to pull off without the whole thing looking brand new. New tile isn’t made the same way as old tile and doesn’t have the same character, so I’d either have to get really spendy reproduction tile or find something salvage. What I thought I really wanted, though, was a nice slab of honed marble. I mean, what’s more classic and pretty than marble, right? Since the size I needed was somewhat irregular (about 75 inches with a flexible depth, ideally between about 16-24 inches) I thought maybe I could find something cheap-ish in the remnant section of a stone yard.

Wrong! I took myself to a local stone place (that mainly does countertops and stuff) and found this really gorgeous slab. It was honed, it was about the right size, and it was even a little damaged along the edges and had a couple scratches, which I sort of liked. But then it priced out at over a thousand dollars, so I burst into tears and ran away. Soapstone was even more expensive, and granite was a little cheaper but still too much money, and I didn’t want granite at all anyway.

bluestone

Then it dawned on me: what about good old Kingston bluestone? I suppose it’s even possible that that’s what was here originally, but who knows. I could probably find something that was locally quarried, super pretty, and much cheaper than marble or soapstone. It would reference Kingston history and even sort of tie into the exterior of the house, which is lined with bluestone sidewalks and pathways.

It just so happens that John, the same friend who gave me the mantel, worked for a couple of years as a stone mason when he first moved up here. My friends, bear in mind that this man is an optometrist. Almost 15 years ago at this point, he decided to take a break from optometry, pretty much just for the sake of learning something awesome that he felt passionate about, and I guess that thing was building stone walls and stuff. He worked as an apprentice under a stone mason named Sean Fox. So when I mentioned wanting bluestone, John knew who to call!

Sean was awesome to work with. I told him what I was doing and what I wanted, and he helped me find slabs that were good options. He also has the cutest German Shepherd named Dante, who is modeling the slab that I chose! The slab was thicker than I anticipated (Sean said that a thinner slab was likely to crack either during transport or once it was in place) and cost $400, which I figured was reasonable. I don’t know if I could have found the stone cheaper elsewhere, but at that point I was excited to have found something I liked and from somebody who understood what I was after. They had to cut the slab down slightly to fit my dimensions, and then burned the edges just a bit. I didn’t want it to look machine-cut, but I also didn’t want it to look overly rustic and rough-hewn, either. He did a perfect job, and I got to pick it up a week later.

FYI, bluestone is HEAVY. I don’t know how much this thing weighed, but I’d guess around a thousand pounds. Seriously! Sean loaded it into the back of John’s pick-up with a forklift, but it was up to me to figure out how to get it into my house and in place on the other end. Yikes! So one day, I finagled all of the people working over at Bluestone Cottage to take a break and walk over to my house to help with this thing. The whole ordeal was VERY STRESSFUL. I don’t have any pictures because I was helping and also shielding my eyes and generally terrified that the whole thing would go crashing through the floor and down into the basement and the whole house would collapse. But between about 6 guys, we were able to get it inside and into place and it wasn’t even as horrible as anticipated. I had to cut out a little more of the floor beforehand, but that wasn’t a big deal.

summercover

With the mantel in my possession and the hearth in the floor (and not going anywhere, ever), I still had to figure out how to sort out the space inside the mantel. I really fly by the seat of my pants, evidently! John actually gave me some cast iron insert parts that were with the mantel back at his house, but they were designed for a firebox and wouldn’t work here, since the wall doesn’t actually have any depth. I really needed something that would cover the entire surface and give the illusion of depth behind it without actually requiring it.

Enter: the fireplace cover! I went to one of the salvage places in town and found this big old rusty cast iron beauty. It isn’t so hard to find the arched (or sometimes rectangular) surrounding part, but the summer cover that goes inside it (exactly what it sounds like—a decorative cover to conceal the firebox in the months when the fireplace wouldn’t be in use) is a bit more rare—and finding the two together is even more challenging! I got really lucky that this one was waiting for me. The dimensions were perfect, and the detailing is just gorgeous! It’s definitely very Victorian (my house is more Greek Revival—in other words, pre-Victorian), but I love it all the same. It came home with me for $150, which is more than I wanted to spend, but after some poking around online seems to be a steal of a deal.

drywalltracing

OK, so! Mantel—check! Hearth—check! Summer cover—check! The next decision was AGONY. What to put between the inside edges of the mantel and the summer cover? Usually I’m pretty decisive with this stuff, but this whole project seemed so full of unknowns and opportunities to royally fuck everything up and end up with something that looked super dumb and super faux and lame and I was very afraid of that happening. The idea of tile was kind of nice, but it was the same issue with the hearth—new tile would result in the whole thing looking new and kind of cheesy, and vintage or repro tiles are so hard to come by and so expensive, and I’d already spent way more money (remember, I’m $550 deep at this point!) on this project that is purely aesthetic and was supposed to be essentially free. Then I went through this long phase where I thought about doing brick veneer tiles and painting them, but I eventually got over it and nixed that idea. I became mildly obsessed with old fireplaces everywhere I went—studying them to figure out what would look authentic and be feasible, and what I landed on was a plastered treatment. You see this a lot in old houses—maybe a brick surround that’s been plastered over and painted. Often the hearth is also painted, but I wasn’t about to slap paint on my bluestone!

So anyway. More faux. I turned the mantel around, screwed a scrap piece of 1/2″ drywall in through the back, and traced the outer edges of the cover with a sharpie. The inner part of the cover is deeper than the outer part, if that makes sense, so the outside needed a lip to sit flush with, while the inside needed a little space behind the face of the drywall. I have no idea if I’m explaining this well. Then I took a drywall knife and cut an inch or two inside my sharpie line and removed the inner piece. Then I (finally!) moved the mantel into place and secured it to the wall by screwing a few 4″ screws through the front and into studs. Then I simply patched the holes (I like Ready Patch for small things like this—it sands down smoother than wood putty) and caulked the places where the mantel meets the wall. Then I just had to patch in a few floor boards and the original molding that I pried off and saved way back when I started this whole rigamarole.

roughskimcoat

Since drywall is so flat and smooth, I used more joint compound to create the faux plaster effect. I was very liberal with it—sort of slathering it on with a 6″ putty knife, intentionally creating and leaving ridges and imperfections along the way. You can sort of tell from the picture how the texture looks, but it wasn’t super evident until I got to the painting step. Anyway, once everything had about 36 hours to dry, I gave it the lightest sanding and moved on.

wirecupbrush

Because the summer cover had been sitting outside for so long at the salvage place and was covered in rust, I used this wire brush attachment on my drill to clean up the surface and prepare it for paint. These things are great for stuff like this! Then I went back in with a regular wire brush to get in the nooks and crannies of the pattern. I’d say all the prep took maybe an hour, and then I just wiped it down with a damp microfiber cloth and let it dry.

coveron

Securing the cover ended up being easier than anticipated. Before I put the whole thing in place, I painted a piece of drywall black and screwed that into the studs, so that you don’t see the framing through the holes in the summer cover pattern. Because the summer cover interlocks with the outer part, all I did to secure the whole assembly was use existing holes in the summer cover pattern. I drove two large screws into the studs behind—you can sort of see the screws in the picture above. The heads are sunk into the existing holes in the pattern, and after the paint, you have to really search for them. Nobody will ever notice except me. And everyone I tell.

painting

FINALLY, PAINT TIME! I had about half a can of high-gloss black oil paint from the failed kitchen floor experiment of yore, and so I broke it out here. This makes the project, as far as I’m concerned. The gloss black accentuates the texture of the faux-plaster business and the intricacy of the summer cover, but I think keeps everything looking understated and classic and pretty. Oil paint is so nice to work with once in a while for small stuff like this—there’s really nothing like it. After this first coat, I caulked at the transition between the cover and the faux-plastered surround and then painted a second coat. The finish is so hard and smooth and pretty. I’m thrilled with how it turned out!

fireplace3

ANNNNDDDDD, DONE. I love it. I really do. It completely changes the room. I don’t feel like it dominates, but it does provide a focal point and just a certain ambiance that was missing before. And I feel like it just fits—like you’d never walk into the house and think it was added recently or even really pay a lot of attention to it at all. That’s exactly what I wanted.

Fireplace2

I’m happy with the way it ended up fitting on the wall, too! Even though it’s a little wider than whatever was here originally, I don’t think it feels out of place or two big for the room.

I love the bluestone, but I do keep wondering what would happen if I tried to darken it up a little bit. I’m sort of afraid to touch it because I don’t want to ruin it, but I wonder if mineral oil would have the same kind of effect on this that it does on soapstone? I don’t know. I’ll live with it for a while and see how I’m feeling some other time.

I’m resisting showing wider shots of the room because it’s actually almost done! Told you I’ve been working hard. There are still a few major items to check off the to-do list, but I’m super excited about the way it’s coming together. It’s so weird and exciting to have this whole other usable space in the house! I can’t wait!

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