This project is in partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!
Since the basement laundry room renovation a few months ago, progress has been a little slow over at ole’ Bluestone Cottage. I’m itching to get going on the finish work (the fun stuff!), but there are some hurdles to overcome first. Right now getting the insulation sorted out is the main priority—something that sounds simple but has required all this back-and-forth hassle between professional installers and the building department and inconsistent information and CAN ANYTHING JUST BE EASY?!
No it cannot. We’ve discussed this at length for roughly nine years. Get with the program.
So here we are in the middle of summer. My strategy is to get the house to the point this fall that the exterior’s in good shape and the interior is insulated and heated and ready for all the fixin’s. I’d really like to have this house occupied next spring, and I really don’t want to have a major exterior project hanging over me when that time comes! SO, while I’m waiting on these few interior things to materialize, and the weather’s good, and fall is just around the corner, I’m finally tackling…THE BACKYARD.
I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about the backyard? I don’t think I ever really showed it? Much like the front of the house, it was a complete jungle of overgrowth and trash when I bought this house, so it wasn’t really possible to take photos that show the whole space. It’s very small—less than 500 square feet!—which I find kind of exciting. It feels manageable in a way that my own much larger backyard doesn’t, and the volume of materials needed for any given improvement isn’t so huge. At the same time, it’s a real design challenge because you still want to include everything you’d want in a larger space, but don’t want it to feel crowded or busy or stupid. Challenge accepted? Great; you don’t have a choice.
By the way, should I be referring to it as the…rear garden? That sounds so much more sophisticated than “backyard.” I feel like that’s what Monty Don would call it.
This is one of the only photos of the rear garden I have from when I bought the house. Cute, right? There was this big storage shed back there, which I think partially collapsed after a tree fell on it. At the time I remember thinking it took up so much space and that the backyard would be so much nicer without trying to also use it as a storage facility, but I now understand why the shed was necessary. Because the house is small, too! The old shed held a wild assortment of toys and figurines and picture frames and stuff, but I’ve really tried to design ample interior storage space for that kind of thing. That said, with only a little tiny basement, there really isn’t anywhere inside the house for gardening tools or outdoor power equipment or snow shovels, fertilizers, seed, etc. This is fine for now since I just bring all that stuff over from my house when I need it, but eventually this house needs to grow its own wings and fly. So keep that in the back of your brain: STORAGE!
Anyway. The shed and its contents were disposed of years ago. And that’s pretty much where the progress in the back stalled until about a week ago.
DO YOU FEEL INSPIRED OR WHAT?! Yikes. What you’re looking at is the north side of the space. The back of the house is on the left, and a 4-ft walkway between that and the rickety wood fence provides access to the space.
So. Lots of old trash—the overgrowth conceals some of it but trust me it’s there. I swear this was just used as an unofficial dumping ground for a while. There’s an oil tank leftover from the house’s old heat system (which had been stripped out, presumably for scrap, when I bought it) a mysterious pile of sand, and just general mayhem.
(Related: if you’re local and need a perfectly good oil tank, hit me up.)
Moving ’round clockwise, the back corner is mostly obstructed by this big tree, which is growing RIGHT on the fence line. This tree was actually supposed to be removed back when I had some other tree work done, but I think a miscommunication resulted in it just getting some pruning. It’s a mulberry tree, which is both yummy and a total mess because those berries drop everywhere.
This is the entire view of the back of the property (it fits in one photo! the whole thing!), which is comprised of a tall chain link fence owned by the community garden behind it. I love having the community garden as neighbors but I always hate chainlink fencing, and since people come in and out of it all day, it makes the backyard feel very exposed. So keep that in the back of your brain: PRIVACY!
Moving clockwise, we have the other side. Here, we threw up a quick fence when I bought the house with some pre-assembled panels mostly to keep the neighbors from disposing of things by just moving them over the property line. Now they just throw things over it, I guess? In fairness I accept responsibility for this—I don’t think people are nearly so inclined to act this way when it’s apparent that a space is being cared for and this one hasn’t really been. So hopefully that won’t be an ongoing issue.
There’s also a nice maple tree! I like the maple tree. I’m guessing it wasn’t planted intentionally but it’s big and appears healthy and provides some shade, so I think keeping it is the right move.
Continuing clockwise around the yard…these “before” photos are gonna be a lot more fun with some “afters” to throw up next to them. I’m working on it!!
Annnnd, we’re back to the rear of the house. Do you have your bearings? So compact!
OK, SO LET’S DIVE IN. The first phase of any landscaping work is to clear, clear, clear. Clear anything and everything out that you don’t need or want. I’m so glad this space is small because this was a big job.
On the first day, I did a bunch of smaller brush removal and filled about 15 paper yard bags with debris. It took a while because I try REALLY hard to keep any bits of trash out of the yard bags, since the county composts and resells it to people (like me!) in the community. Nobody wants plastic in their compost!
For the Mulberry tree, I called my normal tree guy (whose prices seem high to me, but he’s in the neighborhood and a good dude), but couldn’t get a call back! I asked Edwin to help me with some other odd jobs for a few days, and we figured we could tackle it together.
Except neither of us have a chainsaw.
SO I BOUGHT A CHAINSAW. I figured the professional tree removal would cost 3x as much as the chainsaw anyway, and I still wouldn’t have a chainsaw. Feel free to borrow this logic when you want to justify power tool purchases. It works for me all the time.
Small note: if there are structures nearby or the tree is big or there are any doubts or hesitations, hire the trained and properly insured professional.
I picked up the Greenworks Pro 60-Volt battery-powered chainsaw, and it is GREAT. Edwin, a straight man, likes to destroy things possibly more than he likes building them, so he tore it out of my hands and climbed the tree before I could take the tag off or fight him for it. He had the time of his life, I think?
So the chainsaw. I am genuinely impressed. We took down the whole tree on one battery and it had no problem getting through big limbs or even the base of the trunk. It uses the same battery as my leaf blower and lawnmower and hedge trimmer, and I feel really good and grown-up about assembling this arsenal of high-quality battery-powered tools. I’m consistently impressed by their performance and expect to use them for a very long time!
And then I took this photo of ol’ Boondock, which is carrying most of a Mulberry tree in its bed. It took two trips to the compost pile at the dump and about $15 and the deed was done.
Many more yard bags and contractor bags later…
HELLO (almost) blank slate! I feel like now we can get a better sense of what we’re working with here. Don’t worry, I’m sure I will find a way to overcomplicate this whole endeavor.
Of course without the tree, it feels a little like a fish bowl because of the chain link fence. I think I have a plan. The community garden folks are thrilled to see the Mulberry tree gone, by the way.
In the foreground, there is an odd pile of large rocks and broken bricks and pieces of concrete. I didn’t have the strength to start dealing with that. Pls ignore.
Sadly the kitchen windows are currently boarded, but I’m working on that too. I’m working on, uh, a lot of things.
Here’s a rough sketch with dimensions so you can see where we’re starting. So! WHAT DO WE DO. THAT IS THE NEXT QUESTION. Remember, this house is not for me to live in, so this is a real question. What do people like to do in backyards? Obviously we are dealing with major size limitations.
Here are some things I’m thinking about as I lay awake every night (it’s getting annoying):
New fence. Private, and uniform all the way around. I think this will make a huge, huge difference. I think horizontal cedar boards will make the space feel a little bit larger. I spoke with the landlord who owns the existing picket fence on the north side and he’s totally on board with letting me replace it with whatever I want.
Storage. Not a TON, but enough for outdoor/gardening-related stuff. This isn’t on the mood board because I think I’m going to try building something custom.
Low-maintenance. This kind of goes along with storage and places to hang out, but I really don’t want to deal with trying to grow/maintain/mow grass back here. I have a low-key pea gravel fetish, so I’m thinking a combination of concrete paving, classic pea gravel, and mulched beds—things that theoretically have to be dealt with only about once or twice a year.
Plants. You could totally go all Secret Garden vibe back here, but I feel like that would not work with the aforementioned practical priorities, so I’m thinking more along the lines of some nice mulched beds along the fence. Maybe some climbers on a trellis, like this one? Maybe some container gardening in some classic terra cotta pots? Maybe another tree? Also, those kitchen windows are gonna need window boxes, right? These window boxes seem promising, and I wouldn’t mind buying something prefab rather than turning that into another project.
String lights, because what kind of monster doesn’t love a string light?
OK! Past experience has taught me that there are some very good brains out there reading this, so I’m curious what your priorities would be! Tell me what you think at once! I insist.
This post is in partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!
WELL, the deed is done. A couple of weeks ago I set aside my shame and came clean with pictures of my upstairs bathroom, and I think we can all agree it was bad. If it wasn’t the most embarrassing room in my house, it was certainly high on the list, and only slowly getting worse and worse the longer I tried to just turn a blind eye and make it work. Exhibit A:
I still kind of can’t believe I posted this haunting photo to the wilds of the Internet, but then again, yes I can. All these years of blogging have really messed with my sense of what’s appropriate for public consumption, to the point that somehow I think this behavior of mass-traumatizing my readers is OK? SORRY. This was the kind of space that most reasonable people would probably consider a total gut-job, myself included—salvaging the couple of remaining nice fixtures and starting over with…everything else. I don’t have the luxury of time or money to take that on right now—or in the closely foreseeable future, really—but I just couldn’t take it anymore and something had to be done quickly and inexpensively and with minimal upheaval. So I done it!
OH HEYYYYYYY. AM I REDEEMED? CAN WE BE FRIENDS AGAIN? I’d like to put this bathroom-based drama behind us. I’m not the same without you.
Let me show you around. I like, really want to.
Various people offered that the issue with my leaky old shower valve was worn out washers, which might have been the case, but the whole thing was so corroded that I couldn’t even pull it apart to access them. I had to cut it out in pieces with an angle grinder! I was more than happy to take this opportunity to swap to a single-lever shower faucet and new tub spout, though, particularly since I have access to the plumbing from the other side of the wall.
There’s a HUGE range in prices out there for tub and shower trim, but I went with the Kohler Coralais valve trim (less than $20!!) and the coordinating chrome tub spout with diverter. Both totally nice! Admittedly I would have been happy with literally anything other than what I had, but I was impressed that these inexpensive options exist that don’t look or feel cheap or builder-grade-y. The most expensive part by far of this upgrade was actually the Kohler Rite-Temp valve that goes in the wall, although often you can replace the trim without having to replace the entire valve. But in this case, WORTH IT. Having a single, smooth lever that delivers consistently-tempered water to my showerhead and out onto my bare butt…this is luxury, people!
Installing it took a little head-scratching because I am not in fact a plumber, but I got the new components roughed in and then it was time for tile!
So. Pretty much the last thing I wanted to do for this project was start ripping out walls and ceilings—I know it might not seem like a big deal, but inherent in that decision would have been addressing any potential issues with framing behind the walls, followed by new insulation, followed by all new drywall and cementboard and vapor barrier and…that is not a quick refresh. That’s a straight-up renovation that we have previously established is for SOME OTHER TIME. So I will be doing some things that are not necessarily advisable for your typical bathroom remodel, but I think are fine for a shorter-term quick n’ dirty solution.
FOR INSTANCE, see above. Behind the formica shower surround and the layers of peeling paint and nonsense, the plaster walls were in decent shape. Before tiling, I slapped up a coat of PlasterWeld, which is really designed to bond new plaster to existing surfaces. Why? Not sure. Saw the can in the basement. Grabbed the can. Figured it couldn’t hurt.
Part 1 of my plan was adding filler strips to the sides to make the cabinet fit snugly into that space, and then covering the top and tub-facing side with cementboard for tile. I did this with scrap wood and a scrap piece of cementboard. USING. STUFF. UP!
Could I have made this cabinet myself? Technically, sure, fine, but did I want to? NOPE. That was a project I could happily avoid by just buying something stock. I have to remind myself that not every single thing needs to be as complicated as possible. I’m outta plywood anyway!
TILE TIME!!! So here’s the deal. The lower half of the room is all Keene’s cement, presumably original to this bathroom, that’s in a 6×6 running bond pattern. I love that choice for a vintage or antique bathroom—classic, simple, and cheap!—but I felt like putting up actual 6×6 tile next to the Keene’s cement 6×6 “tile” would feel weird and bad. Ditto on the other most obviously appropriate solution, subway tile. I felt like it needed to be something really different in scale and texture, but at the same time nothing too overpowering because I still want the fabulous sink to be the star of the show. ALSO it had to be relatively inexpensive and preferably easy to install because someday in the likely distant future I’d like to rip out this tub which will prompt ripping out the tile as well.
So naturally I sprung for marble.
Kidding! It’s faux!!! This feels very out of character because, not that you asked, but I’m generally not about ceramic or porcelain tile that’s supposed to look like something else. There’s just so much nice tile out there that faux-wood or faux-stone tile usually feels to me like a missed opportunity to do something so much more interesting? I also grew up with unconvincing 90s faux-stone ceramic floors…you know the kind, where all the tiles are exactly the same, and the tile installer is supposed to rotate them to create the illusion of randomness and variation?
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a new world. These things have improved by leaps and bounds. I found this 12″ x 24″ True Porcelain Arabescato Gold polished tile at Lowe’s and I think it’s pretty great looking. With natural stone I tend to like a honed finish—also an option here, and cheaper—but I thought the polished ones looked more lifelike. I think there are 8(?) different tiles—enough that you don’t get that phony repetitive look that happens when they’re all identical—and there’s nice depth and subtlety and variation and unless you’re standing 6 inches away and REALLY looking, it’s amazingly convincing. I kind of can’t believe how much I love it. And at $3/square foot, the price is awesome. I find this to be true of Lowe’s tile selection generally, by the way—they have SO many great options that look high-end but are totally budget-friendly. I’m kind of a big fan of whoever handles the tile department internally and think we could probs be friends. *blushes and runs away*
Part of the appeal for me with the large format tile was I thought it would be so fast to install! Ha! It’s just as complicated as smaller tile, just in a different way. I’m really glad I took a little time before I just dove into tiling to plan out my runs to avoid ending up with any little tiny slivers of tile. I hate that! So I drew this very technical sketch and then dove right in.
I’m not honestly sure if I’ve ever worked with porcelain tile before?? The tile itself is harder than ceramic, and cutting the hole for the valve was unexpectedly challenging. After burning through a 4″ carbide-tipped hole saw, I went and bought a diamond grit jigsaw blade which—along with a lot of water from a spray bottle—did the trick pretty quickly. I thought I’d have the whole thing tiled in a couple hours, so naturally it took about that long to get this hole cut and get the first one into place. Live and learn! Things got much easier from there.
I picked up this Spin Doctor spacer/leveling system on my way out of Lowe’s with my boxes of tile “just in case” and they were a LIFESAVER. It can be hard to get large format tiles to sit level and flush with each other under normal circumstances, and particularly when the walls/floor underneath aren’t especially even (like here!) and these are ingeniously designed to fix that problem. If you’re installing large format tiles, I HIGHLY recommend these—you will thank me later. I went with the 1/16″ spacer, although there’s a 1/8″ option as well. I like a small grout line! Unfortunately I can’t find a direct link to these with the rest of the tile spacers on the Lowe’s website, but they’re definitely at my local store so keep an eye out.
By the way, I had a bunch of half-bags of thinset from various projects that I was planning to use up for this, but I’d forgotten that large format tile needs large format thinset! So I bought MAPEI Large Format Floor and Wall Thinset, which is made for tiles this size. I also used a 1/2″ x 1/2″ square-notch trowel to spread it onto the wall. The bag of thinset will usually tell you what size trowel to use depending on how big your tile is. Don’t fear! The answers you seek are right in front of you! Calm down!
The next day, I removed the spacers and scraped out any thinset that squeezed through the grout joints. Then I used MAPEI Flexcolor pre-mixed grout in the Warm Gray color, which I thought went nicely with the tile. Not too dark, not too light. Cool story. You pay a premium for the convenience of pre-mixed grout rather than mixing it yourself, but it’s nice to speed things up and avoid more mess in situations like this.
Moving! Right! Along! With the shower surround tile taken care of, I moved onto the rest of the walls. In some places, the walls easily scraped down to bare plaster, but the paint was more stubborn in other areas. Cracks abounded, old repair work had not exactly contributed to a smooth and even surface…they’re old plaster walls, basically.
Enter, Anaglypta! Do we already know about Anaglypta? It’s cool stuff—wallpaper with an embossed pattern on it that’s been in production since Victorian times! And guess who has a great selection of it? LOWE’S! Color me impressed. Anaglypta is thick and durable, and a great solution for covering imperfections and cracks and stuff without having to do a ton of repair work first. It’s meant to be painted, which can be anything from regular wall paint to a more elaborate faux finish that really highlights the design. So pretty and old-fashioned! There’s a pretty big range in prices, so OF COURSE my favorite—the Brewster pattern— was one of the most expensive options. So it goes. I ordered it anyway because I lack self-control!
To prep the walls, I did some light and quick skim-coating with 45-minute joint compound just to fill in any major problem areas and feather out ridges where stubborn paint met bare plaster. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Then I primed with clear Peel Stop primer, which I had in the basement from another project, to hopefully ensure that nothing continues to peel over time. I can’t tell you if that was the right thing to do, but it seemed like it at the time?
Exciting! So nice to just make all those imperfections disappear. I used this Universal Wallpaper paste, which I still had leftover from when I wallpapered my office (which later became my laundry room) several years ago. The installation isn’t anything too different from regular wallpaper, except that you want to use a rigid bristle brush to smooth it rather than a flat smoothing tool which can damage the paper by flattening the texture. It took me about 4 hours working by myself to get it all hung, which could have been sped up significantly with a second set of hands. Mekko and Bungee were zero help, unfortunately.
After the wallpaper was up, time for some quick millwork! I made baseboards out of standard 1×6 stock, and then used my router table to mill a 1/2″ bead, which I ripped down on my table saw and then nailed to the top of the boards—replicating the simple and modest baseboard molding found in the closets of my house. For the chair rail, I used this super simple pine bead molding from Lowe’s, and this simple pine bed molding as crown all the way around the room. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to finish off the uneven line where the top of the tile meets the ceiling, and applying it over the wallpaper meant I didn’t have to be too precise about the top and bottom of the paper when I was putting it up, since I had a little room to play that would be covered by the moldings.
While I was at it, I also face-nailed 4 pieces of wood to the front of the cabinet at the end of the tub to create a face-frame, so the door and drawer front would look inset and the whole thing more built-in.
Finally, time to sort out the electric! A surprising number of you were disturbed by my exposed conduit electrical solution, and I’m not about to do all this other stuff without at least improving that a little! Since the other side of this wall is now down to the studs, this was the time to get classy and cut in a politely recessed outlet and boxes for the lighting. So I grabbed my Dremel MultiMax MM50 sidekick and made a nice clean electrical-box-shaped hole next to the sink.
At the last minute, I decided it probably would be nice to have an overhead light as well as a vanity light above the mirror, so I cut a hole in the ceiling and ran a wire for that, too. I’m really glad I did!
Then it’s just that same old familiar story of a little sanding here, a little patching there, a little caulking all over, paint, installing the lighting, etc. etc. and…well I’ll be damned, it’s a bathroom!
I am PLEASANTLY surprised by this space! It feels so much bigger and brighter and cleaner and just all-around a million times nicer. Being able to comfortably allow guests to use the bathroom for the first time in so many years feels GREAT. Of course, I’m enjoying it too!
I really wrestled with paint colors for this room, but I like where it ended up! The Anaglypta and ceiling are Valspar’s Wispy White (the ceiling is flat and the walls/crown are satin finish). The cabinet at the end of the tub, window/door casings, and Keene’s cement are painted in Valspar’s Country Charm in semi-gloss, a warm beige-y neutral that’s extremely close to the original paint color in here. It was tempting to go with something more exciting or saturated, but I think between the texture of the wallpaper, the marble tile, and the Keene’s cement, keeping the colors subdued helps it from feeling too busy or over-the-top. Everything is painted in Valspar Signature paint.
Spot the difference!
I got all naughty and reinstalled the shelf and mirror a little bit lower than they were originally, and I think it looks better. Take that, Victorians! It feels so good to be bad.
Even going really basic and inexpensive with the new shower trim, the new valve/trim combo feels lux beyond words. The Waterpik showerhead is possibly the ONE thing that had actually already been updated in this room—thanks to Max who insisted on it when we bought the house—so that stayed. It’s not the most elegant thing in the world but it’s still going strong, so no real reason to replace it. I think it’s this one, or at least very similar?
For the vanity light, I wanted something that would kind of blend in with the original hardware and was excited to find this one! Like a lost member of my little hardware family over here. I think the ribbed glass shades add a nice vintage touch, too. I ordered it online, and for the $100 price tag I wasn’t totally sure what to expect, but the quality is really excellent—I feel like it looks way more upscale than the price suggests, and it’s nice and heavy and well-made. You can hang it with the shades facing up or down, and it’s also available as single, double, or quadruple light arrangements—and they’re all on sale! Mine, of course, is the triple light version.
I’d just like to point out the antique towel ring/hook combo seen above was NOT part of the original bathroom, but something I picked up a few years ago on a visit to Brooklyn. I knew it was a different manufacturer than the shelf brackets, but had no idea at the time that it’s by the same company—Brasscrafters—that originally made the mirror! Fun times with hoarding. Both can be seen in this catalog from the 1920s.
The roses I grew in my own yard and I feel v proud of them.
This tub really doesn’t belong in this bathroom, and the space it leaves at the end there—particularly in relation to the window—is kind of destined to be a little awkward. I tried to make the best of it! The drawer provides a nice little bit of storage, and down below…
Who says a hamper can’t be a trash can? This Rev-A-Shelf slide-out trash thing used to be in my kitchen for trash and recycling, but then I went and destroyed my kitchen so it went into indefinite storage. Along the way I seem to have lost one of the plastic cans, so I ordered new white ones online and now this thing is back in action!
I think this is the most mortifying and sad photo to ever appear on this blog, and now I’m publishing it for the second time because evidently I’m a true glutton for shame.
BLESS UP to this cute cute cute Eastlake-ish cabinet I got at auction years ago for like $30. It’s been hiding in the basement ever since! I dragged her out, cleaned her up, and wouldn’t ya know it…she holds a ton of stuff! Pretty much everything that was crammed into that awkward spot at the end of the tub, that dumb little red IKEA cabinet, and clutter from the shelf all fits in here. I think the scale of it helps draw focus away from the lopsided basic modern toilet.
All that remains of the exposed conduit is a short length that comes out the wall and ends in this little single-gang box with a double switch for the overhead and the vanity light. Am I wrong to think it’s a little cute? This bathroom has NEVER had a light switch in 100+ years, so having TWO lighting options both powered with the flick of a finger when you walk in the door seems extremely modern and cool.
Also let’s appreciate my original TP holder while we’re here. Changing the roll is a little more complicated than the tension designs of today, but it sure is pretty!
Does that about cover it? Did we talk about all the things?
OH RIGHT! Where’d the money go? I did spend a bit more than I’d hoped, but came pretty close! I’m not counting various vintage things or renovation supplies I had squirreled away, or things like the notched trowel that are reusable tools—you get the idea. Let’s run it down:
I love my bathroom now! This came out a lot better than I expected, and I can’t really express how great it is to move this bathroom down to the very bottom of the list of renovation priorities so I can focus on the rest of this crazy house. A huge thank you to my friends at Lowe’s for making it all happen!!
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.
This post is a paid partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!
WELL BOY OH BOY, it’s been a busy month of work on the Bluestone Cottage basement renovation, and now I have stuff to show you! The very first finished space in this house! Which may have been the most challenging one, although I may eat those words later, and certainly the most grim “before” I’ve ever encountered. If you haven’t checked out the earlier posts about resurfacing the concrete floor and adding insulation and finishes, go read those! We’ve got a lot of ground to get through in this one!
SHALL WE?! Let’s go.
Even though this old basement access is now covered over in favor of new wooden steps stacked under the main staircase, let’s just think wayyyyyyy back for a moment to when I first walked through this house and located the basement access. I walked down with just my iPhone flashlight, and then NOPE’D my butt right out of there. It was dark, dank, smelly, cramped, and littered with trash. And carpeting!! The kind of space where you might come upon a corpse and kinda feel like you asked for it.
Later on, once I got some lights set up down there, I took a total of two photos. They are above. I do this to myself sometimes: if I don’t really foresee something undergoing a big transformation, I neglect to take nearly enough “before” pictures and then I’m grumpy about it later. But anyway: can’t you just see a washer and dryer tucked into that little nook? No?
How about now?
NOT TOO SHABBY, AM I RIGHT?! I kind of surprised myself in here: I started work on this a month ago without any real design plan, and then inspiration struck hard in the form of Port Lockroy, a 1940s British research station on Antarctica. I tried to really let that space guide me with more than just a color scheme—the modesty, the simplicity and handmade quality of it were just as informative! I tend to overcomplicate things for myself sometimes, so I found myself mulling a lot over how to deal with certain things efficiently and frugally and without a lot of fuss. Some of those solutions ended up being my favorite things in the room!
This is shortly after I started work about a month ago, after I spent a few days cleaning up! Edwin and I had previously framed the walls, and electric and plumbing rough-ins had to be completed before any of this finish work could take place. The propane tank, by the way, is connected to this Craftsman portable propane heater—I have no idea how I lived for so long without one of these for winter projects.
S’cute right? I really wanted the space to feel super casual and practical because it’s a basement! In an old house! Practical is its entire job! So it’s not precious—throw up a hook wherever you need it, add a shelf, staple a cable, cut a hole and patch it with something else, provided you paint it—it’s all good.
Bear in mind that almost every single thing in this space is brand new and from Lowe’s!, but I still wanted it to feel like a vintage space. Finishing it like the rest of the house would have felt too formal and unnatural, though, so I tried to do things throughout to get that nice fresh WWII vibe all the kids are talking about (if I say it, does that make it true?). I basically asked myself “what would grandpa do?” a lot. Not either of my actual grandpas—to be honest, I have no idea how they would have finished a basement in 1945—more like some generic old guy in my brain who putters around. He’s always been old and he doesn’t have time for your shenanigans. Grandpa paints right over the outlets and switches and utilities, so I DID TOO. Grandpa ain’t about that painter’s tape life either. It felt so naughty and liberating. But like, I think it works.
Behind that door is the old basement access. Aside from the floor, I haven’t really dealt with that space yet, but it’ll house the boiler and some additional storage. I love that there’s a separate space for that! Because the ceiling height is so low (about 6-6’4″ depending on where you’re standing), it’s also really nice to have all the plumbing tucked into the ceiling so it could be finished without exposed Pex. Copper pipe can look great but Pex isn’t as nice to look at.
Putting all the hooks and hangers and tools on the pegboard was so much funnnnnn. I’ve never actually had a pegboard, and now I want one for myself! I kind of want this whole room for myself, but that’s a different story.
OK, now that we’ve kind of given it the once-over, let’s break it down!
Last time, we discussed the Azek composite baseboards, Dow Froth-Pak spray foam insulation, and 1/4″ thick beadboard plywood that I used for the walls. As a precaution, I painted the backside of the plywood with Rust-Oleum’s Mold Killing Primer. I attached the panels to the studs with 1 1/4″ exterior screws, and strips of scrap wood cover all the seams! The intention here is that should parts of a wall/ceiling ever need to be removed for any reason (like to access a pipe or a cable or something), one could do so fairly easily by just prying off the seam trim and locating the screw heads, and everything could likely be reused for the repair.
Since I ripped the panel widths down for the walls, I had some large off-cuts to use on the ceiling! The joists are all over the place and the thin plywood is definitely wavy as a result, but it’s ok! It looked so bad before I put up the seams to cover the strips and painted it, but now it’s great. The strips on the seams, by the way, are just the same plywood ripped to 2″ and flipped over to the smooth side. The “chair rail” piece is scraps of that same Azek composite board I used for the baseboard, ripped down to 2″ and only 1/2″ thick. I made a LOT of sawdust during this project, but didn’t buy any lumber (composite or real!) aside from 15 sheets of the plywood.
Itty bitty window! I’m pretty sure it had only been painted when it was new and had never been reglazed—which left it in probably the most restorable condition of any window in the house!
The old hardware didn’t work anymore with the new framing/trim, so I had to improvise a little but it works!
I couldn’t dress up this room without a few little nods to my Antarctic inspiration. That little print is by Charley Harper—I’ve been carrying around a stack of prints like this that I ripped out of a day planner like a decade ago.
This vintage print is one of the only things left in my own house from a previous owner, and I thought it’d be cute just hanging there tacked to the wall all casual. I used my super special supply of vintage carpet tacks for the occasion.
The door to the boiler room actually came out of my own house, too! It was a 1930s closet addition and the style isn’t appropriate for my house, but it’s perfect for this space! And it was already so small that I only had to cut about an inch off the bottom to make it work. Like it was meant to be!
So the grandpa part of me wanted to paint the door hardware right along with the door, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Ha! So I restored it instead. The backplate was original to this door, but the knob itself came from this house (the original knob is glass—I may use it upstairs?). I like when I can use excess from my house in other projects—it makes them all feel linked in a weird way.
Can we just take a hard right for a second and talk about HOW GLORIOUS IS THIS PAINT?! Now, you guys know me by now, right? I tend to be a black-white-neutral kinda guy when it comes to paint. I’m not typically using two really strong greens in combination, plus a color that resembles warm mayonnaise. BUT I LOVE IT. I love it so much that I wish we could all hang out down here in person, because the colors don’t translate precisely into photos shot in artificial light on an iPhone, but I did my best. It feels cheery and clean and vintage and modern and British and nautical and like a morgue all at the same time. The morgue part, especially, pleases me greatly.
Over time I’ve learned to appreciate sheens as much as colors—how glossy or matte a paint is can be a total game-changer! The Valspar High Gloss Enamel paint is fantastic to work with—thick, great coverage, and excellent self-leveling ability. The high gloss feels SO nice down here—it really gives off a vintage oil-based paint vibe, but with all the convenience and relative environmental friendliness and accelerated dry time of modern latex paint. Every surface feels scrubbable and smooth, and the sheen reflects a lot of light and makes the whole space just feel fresh. Love.
The actual painting was a bit labor-intensive, but totally worth it. I ended up finding that rolling with a regular nap 9″ roller and back-brushing everything with a 3″ angled brush was a good method for getting thorough coverage—all those grooves in the beaded ply suck up a lot of paint! You want to use kind of a heavy hand to get that thick oil-based paint look, you know? I did a minimum of two coats and three in some areas, and it would just look better and better with more coats. That plywood goes from looking a little hokey and cheap to downright luxurious with the right paint and caulk.
By the way, I’m a huge fan of these Whizz Microlon roller covers. They don’t shed like other roller covers do, and they wash really well—I threw some in my washing machine after giving them a good rinse, and they came out looking and feeling brand new! They’re awesome.
The upper walls and ceiling are Valspar’s “Ginger Sugar,” the minty color is called “Kelp,” and the dark green accent is “Palace Green.” For maybe the first time ever, I got three sample colors and ended up using exactly those three sample colors!
By the way—it took me a while to figure out how exactly to deal with these stairs. They were built speedily but not well, which ended up making a bunch of extra work for me later to reinforce all the treads and figure out how to finish them in a way that felt decent-looking and easy to clean. On the upside, I’m pretty sure I’ve figured it out. On the downside, I haven’t actually done it yet. But the stringer looks not bad for nailing some literal trash to it and painting it green! Let’s also not forget that I still have to renovate the entire house, so those basement stairs might take a beating before all is said and done—it might be better to just wait.
ANYWAY. Let’s discuss this region of the room. Pegboard? Love it. I just used a regular roller to paint it (be careful with brushing—paint can pool in the holes and drip out as it dries). It’s furred out 1″ from the studs behind, which creates the space for the pegs to be inserted into place. I started with this large assortment of pegboard accessories by Blue Hawkand then purchased a few extra bits like those little black mesh baskets and little yellow containers. I think organizing the pegboard is my new favorite game.
The big wooden trunk is an antique I picked up a while ago that I never especially had a space for in my house, but it adds a lot of charm here! It’s currently empty, but it could store a million different things. At my house it held a sewing machine and a bunch of fabric and associated supplies, but I decided those things would feel more at home spread across my dining room table because I needed to poach that trunk for my big boy art project.
The hanging clothes dryer is from one of my favorite stores in Brooklyn (now closed, like everything else I used to like in Brooklyn), and is no longer in production, so I cannot help you there. It hung in my first laundry room in my own house, and I would have reused it in my second one but there just wasn’t a good spot for it. I know this arrangement looks a little funny, but it’s hung far enough from the pegboard that I don’t think it’s an issue.
Speaking of drying! I’m not yet in a position to report back on the performance of the Bosch 500-series washer and matching electric ventless dryer I got for this space (read more about that decision-making here!) because they aren’t tottttalllllly hooked up yet, but I still feel good about them! You guys gave me a lot of good feedback on ventless dryers—which are definitely not all created equal—including how to optimize performance and what to reasonably expect. Some of you even have experience with these very models, which was encouraging! So anyway, I’m hoping that between the actual dryer, the hanging dryer, and the clothesline, there are enough ways to dry stuff down here.
OH YEAH GIRL, THERE’S A RETRACTABLE CLOTHESLINE. Did you think this was a JOKE? It stretches from one side of the room to the other and it took about 5 minutes to put up but somehow feels like huge fancy luxury and height of modern convenience.
My machine nook ended up being weirdly challenging! The hookups are way up by the ceiling (remember, really low ceilings), and I hate looking at that stuff but it needs to be easily accessible. I also wanted a big surface on top to fold or sort or put down a towel and iron or whatever, and a place to throw stuff away, while still leaving space around the machines (evidently crowding the dryer can really affect its performance), and then there’s that big 3″ waste line above and other plumbing just cutting across all ugly like that.
For the work surface, I mounted old 2×4 scraps as cleats to the side walls and back (I ended up cutting off the ends of that back piece later for the hoses and cords to fit up through), being sure to hit the studs. Then I used this Baltic Birch butcherblock counter, which was almost the perfect size! A few measurements and a pass with the circular saw later, I had a SUPER nice, solid worktop! To finish it, I used this Watco butcher block oil and finish, which is excellent stuff—it doesn’t need to be refreshed nearly as often as mineral oil does.
The overhead waste line situation was a little more iffy. I thought originally that I’d just build out a little soffit and box it in like a regular person, but after putting up a small section just to get a sense of how it would look and feel, I couldn’t! It looked AWFUL and it was a real head-banger—worse than the pipe alone since it protruded out further and lower. Just so awkward and terrible. I moved on to other stuff until I could think of a better solution. What would grandpa do?
Well, I’m not sure what grandpa would do but I know what I did which was so easy and I’m a little too smug about. I attached the framing lumber—one nailer up on the ceiling and one below on the wall. Obviously the framing is level and the pipe is pitched down, so I wanted to keep my “soffit” as high as possible while still maintaining a level line.
One occasionally advantageous quality of the Azek composite boards is that they’re SUPER bendy. After ripping 3/4″ thick boards down to 1/2″ thick for the chair rail, I had a lot of 1/8″ thick off-cuts that can bend almost in half before breaking. A-ha! I attached strips like this in several places along the length of the soffit to create a super-simple frame/shape.
Then, I attached 14″ flashing to the framing along the ceiling, and pulled it over my rounded composite board skeleton so it’d maintain a nice curve! I went into Lowe’s for aluminum flashing but opted for this vinyl flashing instead, since I thought it would be more forgiving as I inevitably bent and creased it by accident during install. This definitely would have been better as a two person job but I managed.
Anyway—a little caulk and paint and now it’s one of my favorite things in the room! It definitely looks like painted sheet metal, not vinyl flashing, and I feel like it’s one of those things your brain just kind of accepts as serving some function and moves on without thinking about more. I felt really crafty with that one, you guys.
For the whole hook-up situation, I tried not to overthink it (there were whole schemes with shelves and cabinets with false backs and other nonsense) and just made myself a little modesty skirt! And I really like it! I used a regular canvas drop cloth from Lowe’s, sewed a couple straight lines and boom, curtain! I hung it off of a metal clothing rod cut to size, which is easy to remove when the curtain needs to be washed. I like that there’s a lot of space to stash stuff behind it, too! There are a couple enamel trays back there to corral bottles of cleaners and stuff.
OK, should we talk about that huge work bench?! I love it and I’m jealous of it! It’s a full 8′ long by 2′ deep, which is such a wonderful and huge work surface to have anywhere in this little house! If I were doing this room for myself I’d probably want more of a proper tool bench with lots of drawers, but this feels more versatile if you just wanted it for general storage.
I started with a classic Edsal shelving unit, but modified it a little. I cut about 2″ off the vertical supports to lower the whole thing—especially with adding the butcherblock top, it was just too high for the space. Before assembly, I laid out all the pieces and coated them with this Krylon bonding primer spray paint, which dries quickly and leaves a nice matte finish to accept the topcoat!
Then I broke out my little Wagner spray gun (I love that thing for little projects like this!) and painted the parts to match the walls, of course!
I really like how it turned out! I’m sure the paint will chip here and there over time with use, but I feel like that’ll make it better in this case. I had to do a little…engineering to get the really nice baltic butcherblock top to work (not as easy as my plan of just plopping it on there), so there’s some added wood support at the ends to hold the top up and L-brackets to keep it in place. I also cut 1/2″ birch plywood for the shelves and layered it on top of the particleboard shelves that come with these units, which will hopefully keep the shelves from bowing and warping over time. I have these set up as shelving in my basement, and the particleboard is, unfortunately, a bendy mess after a few years.
By the way, I picked up an assortment of these Hefty storage containers to keep things more organized (the cottage has its own painting bin! how quaint!), and they’re great for this kind of thing! Most of the storage containers in my own basement are flimsy and tend to break a lot, but these seem really sturdy and up to the task of dealing with tools and heavy odd-shaped stuff. It’s nice to be able to just pull out a bin of everything you need (or at least everything you have, so you know what you need!) for a specific task.
Oh right—finally, the floor! It’s been a journey with this floor, which started with a cleaning marathon, followed by patching, priming, pouring Sakrete Self-Leveling Resurfacer, having to stop, priming again, and pouring more self-leveling resurfacer, tinted this time. Read that whole process here! I neither loved nor hated the final color of the concrete (I should have made myself some samples before mixing and pouring 700 pounds of concrete—my bad), but knew it would darken with a sealer and I wasn’t sure how it would play once the rest of the space was coming together.
Turns out—not into it! It wasn’t horrible but not really what I wanted. I spent about an hour sanding it with an orbital sander connected to my shopvac with 40 grit paper, which took off any paint drips, smoothed and buffed it out a little, and kind of softened the splatter-y stuff I did at the end of my concrete pour.
OK, so: people paint concrete. People stain concrete. People seal concrete. People epoxy concrete, and resurface concrete, and lay other flooring on top of concrete, and stencil it, and pour acid all over it. Within all of these categories of Things People Do to Concrete, we have subcategories. Finally we have products, and reviews for those products, and limitations of those products like the surface temperature and how long the concrete has cured, and these things are complicated by the fact that this has all been done in sub-optimal too-cold conditions in spite of my best efforts and I don’t know if any of it is a good idea. I tossed around my options for…weeks. My primary concern was that I’d do something that would wind up peeling, and then I’d hate myself forever? I’m not sure why this floor felt so high stakes.
While sanding the floor, I realized that my light, quick sanding wasn’t all that quick! The paint drips proved a lot harder to get out than I thought they’d be when I was cavalierly just painting without drop cloths, which I did because I knew I wanted to sand the floor down a little anyway, and I wanted to see the colors together.
Sometimes in situations like this, I’ll come up with a solution and somehow convince myself it’s the best one and I can’t really justify it later but it worked out so who cares? This is that. I bought a quart of dark brown latex paint. I thinned it to a ratio of about 4 parts water to 1 part paint. Then, because it was sitting there, I grabbed some of the powdered orange concrete tint and threw that in there too, because why not. Then I mixed it all up in a 5 gallon bucket.
I cut in around the room with a brush and then wiped up any excess, which was very little. That was the point! If it really soaks into the concrete instead of sitting on top of it…I mean, that’s logically what you want, right?
Anyway. I rolled out about 4’x4′ sections, and then buffed out the excess with a towel. I kept working that way across the floor, blending edges. What was kind of cool was that the powdered concrete tint didn’t really incorporate into the paint-water mix, so some spots got more pigment than others and I could blend those areas out to create some nice variation.
I don’t know, I’m into it.
The next day when the “stain” was totally dry, I added one coat of this Valspar Protective Sealer in the “wet look” (there’s also a “natural look,” which really is invisible when it’s dry). This deepens the color and dries with a glossy sheen—which I like in an instance like this, where it’s still a concrete floor but you want to be able to mop it, ya know? It soaks in really nicely—the reviews for this stuff are a mixed bag, but I’ve used it several times now for different things (brick, natural stone, now concrete) and it’s been great every time and very forgiving. Ideally I would have done at least one additional coat, but I was antsy to put this floor project to bed and it looked good with one, so I figured I could always add another later on down the line.
SO. ANYWAY. WHAT ELSE. I’ve reached a point where I think I have a mirror for any occasion? This one isn’t as old as I usually like ’em, but it’s so sweet for this house. Evidently I bought it at an auction, and since I don’t remember doing so, that means it was very very cheap. Unless I bought it at a yard sale from somebody who bought it at an auction and just left the lot sticker on. This is not important. I’m not worried about it, you’re worried about it!
That vintage ball lamp has been with me for years! I threw a bunch of these little brass Gatehouse coat hooks around the room, just because. Hooks are so handy. Never enough hooks. And I feel like these $3 basic hooks are perfect for this kind of space. I wish a little bit I’d hung them earlier so I could have painted over them—you know that’s what grandpa would have done!
That plaid throw laid SO VERY CASUALLY across the worktop is the official tartan of Antarctica, purchased at the continent’s only gift shop at Port Lockroy—the historic site that inspired this room for me. And I feel sort of stupid saying it, but creating this space felt on some level like being able to go back there, just a little bit. Or maybe access the feelings, somehow, of being there. Because “there” was a physical space, of course, but it was also a headspace that was more impactful than I think I realized at the time. It was a time of shifting perspective; of evaluating my life and thinking critically about such topics as priorities and goals and what are you doing?—a question often quickly followed by with that poor house down the street?
Welp. I did this with that poor house down the street. From the design to the sponsorship to the basement-ness of it, it’s all been outside of my comfort zone in a way that’s been challenging and stimulating and hard and highly productive. I’m not going to pretend every day down in that room was fun and exciting, but it also felt like exactly where I needed to be. Like I was keeping some important promises I’d made to myself down at the bottom of the globe. Following through. Getting it done. Doing the work. Sucking it up. Getting back on track—maybe not the same track, but a track. Tracks are nice.
So anyway. I love this room, and I love you guys for being on this weird funny ride with me—even when the waters get a little choppy. And a huge thank you to Lowe’s for allowing me to take this on! I know for certain that this room is vastly better for the opportunity to do this with them.
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.