Bluestone Backyard Makeover: Welcome to the Jungle!

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 spaceThe 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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Place(s) to hang out. I’m torn here. Chairs? An outdoor sofa? A dining table? A bistro table? Some combination? It’s tricky. I want it to be cozy and a place that will actually get used. I like a classic Adirondack chair…and a small table and chairs to sip morning coffee or evening cocktails (or morning cocktails and evening coffee; you do you). Pretend you’re renting this house: what would you want? Lowe’s has a whole lot of options!
  4. 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.
  5. Outdoor cooking. Nothing crazy but it should have a grill, right? Sadly fire pits are a no-no in Kingston, but grills are OK. I love a classic little Weber charcoal grill, and I’m intrigued by this newer design that makes the charcoal/ash clean-up easier. And it comes in cool finishes like copper and this dark green!
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

So I Bought a Truck.

Pretty much since the second I bought and started renovating my house, I’ve felt like I really needed a pick-up truck. At the time, I was driving the same Volkswagen Jetta I’d gotten in high school—a petite and sporty four-door sedan which, I discovered, perfectly accommodated 8-foot lengths of lumber. I loved that car. But soon the time came to replace it, and I was really thinking about a pick-up truck. Basically everyone in my life told me this would be an expensive and regrettable mistake, and I’d be much better off somewhere in the middle between the pick-up fantasy and the teeny Jetta reality, and that’s how I ended up with the very practical and—regionally, at least—extraordinarily popular Subaru Forester. I cannot tell you how many times I have pulled into a parking space and been surrounded by 3 identical Subaru Foresters in the adjacent spots. I lose it all the time in public lots and garages, and one time I tried to drive away in the wrong one because the owner had left it unlocked and parked three spaces behind me on the street. It was the different smell inside that tipped me off to my mistake, and then the car seat. It’s a Very Good Car by all accounts and I don’t blame others for choosing it: it’s comfortable and safe and has leather seats and it can fit a reasonable amount of stuff. And I haul around a lot of stuff. It also has a handy sunroof, demonstrated below.

I’m not sure where it was pointed out to me—probably in the comments on this blog—that this is a great car if you’re, like, a guy who goes back and forth from the city to his country house and does projects on the weekends. And I think that’s probably accurate. The problem is, that’s not me. I still don’t really consider myself a professional contractor but I play one a whole lot of the time, and this is simply not an appropriate vehicle. Firstly, because it has major limitations for what it can fit. Secondly because it’s actually a nice fucking car that should hold some resale value, but using it as a work vehicle means scratches, dents, damage, mess, and major wear and tear. It just does.

To compensate, my brilliant solution was a utility trailer that hitches to the back of the Subaru and gets dragged around. While handy, the thing is a goddamn hazard on wheels. First of all, you essentially become the length of three cars, which is unwieldy and difficult to park and not something you want to drive around any longer than you need to. Secondly, I find it hard to control in reverse, and although my skills have improved immensely, this personal development came at the cost of both corners of the Subaru’s front bumper, a rearview mirror, and a large sheet of molded plastic that ripped off the undercarriage, which evidently is called the engine splash guard, which sounds important. The trailer is big and heavy and a pain to put on and take off of the car, and then it has to be stored somewhere in the backyard where it’s inevitably in the way. One time it bumped a curb and an entire wheel flew off, leaving one end of the axel dragging along the asphalt and spitting up a dramatic display of sparks. Another time, the hitch part wasn’t fully attached when Edwin took off with a couple thousand pounds of concrete, which meant that the trailer was being dragged only by the chains that keep it attached to the car in the event that the hitch fails. Those of us witnessing it outside the car screamed in unison, which prompted him to brake suddenly, which resulted in the trailer violently colliding with the back of my trunk. I have not fixed any of this damage because 1) $$ and 2) something else will just happen again as long as this trailer nuisance is part of my life.

I hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. This last event was almost a year ago, and I think this might have been the moment that I resolved, for the thousandth time, to procure a pick-up by the following summer. Which is now. I accepted that this would probably mean owning two cars and made peace with it. I have big and ambitious plans to do a lot of landscaping work—more specifically, hardscaping work—which involves hauling around lots of heavy stuff. I couldn’t face another summer of further trashing my fairly new Subaru, or trying to borrow friends’ trucks, or renting trucks all the time, or relying on deliveries and the slippery timeframes and headaches inherent in that. I just want to be able to do the things I need to do without it being a whole thing.

In case it wasn’t plainly obvious, I am so not a car guy. I don’t know anything about them and I don’t care to learn. I do not know how to change my own oil. I have never jump-started a battery or changed a tire, and I have to be told when it’s time to have the brake pads or tires replaced. It’s not that I’m afraid of driving a stick-shift, more that I am severely disinterested by the entire concept. I find comparing models incredibly tedious and I don’t know what half the words mean. I had to look up the terms “cab” and “bed” and “4×4” and I swear that is backed up by my browser history. It’s just a whole area of culture that I couldn’t possibly care less about.

As it happens, there are many types of pick-up trucks out there. And those shits hold value! Stuff will be like 12 years old and listed for $15,000. Also a lot of them are manual transmission. Also a lot of them don’t drive, but instead are being sold for parts. And sometimes they don’t have a title? There is so much to know. I wanted to spend about a thousand dollars, on a small automatic pick-up that could haul a lot of stuff at once. After extensive research which started and ended with noticing cars around me that looked like maybe something that would fit the bill, I was looking specifically for a Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, or Dodge Dakota. EXCITING, I KNOW. I limited my search to the sketchy wilds of Facebook Marketplace, which seemed like a path of least resistance and a manageably few number of options. I spent about a week checking back whenever I was on the toilet for new listings.

So. I see one that looks decent. Message guy. Guy is a mechanic. Truck runs and drives good. I schedule to go check it out the next day. I check it out. Looks decent. Drives weird. Guy says he knows what’s wrong and he’ll fix it. I come back the next day. He has fixed it. Car still drives weird. Guy realizes he did not in fact fix it but says he can and will. Unsurprisingly I do not understand what the issue is, but am now feeling both wary and invested because I have driven an hour round-trip two days in a row to drive his broken car. I tell him if it is really fixed I will buy it. He insists it will be. I register the car, get the plates, and add it to my insurance policy. I go back for the third time. Car is fixed. It drives like a car. I hand over the money and leave. Half a mile down the road, the Check Engine light comes on. Of course it does.

Admittedly, I felt some immediate buyer’s remorse. I did not want a broken car, and since I’ve never actually had a pick-up, maybe I was vastly over-estimating how much this would really improve my life or even get used. Maybe this was a big stupid waste of time and money.

I took it to a mechanic who had very not-nice things to say about my new car. Something about some part on or above or inside the engine that is probably bad, and that it might make more sense to scrap it than throw good money after bad. A friend recommended a different mechanic so I took it to him. He was rough around the edges but fixed the issue and then didn’t charging me for the work, which…does that happen?! I feel like cars are always a thousand dollars. Whatever is wrong, it will cost a thousand dollars. A few weeks later I remembered that he installed a new battery, so I went back and insisted he at least charge me for that. He’d forgotten he did it but was grateful I didn’t, and now…I think I…have a mechanic?? This is a relief because I think I will be needing him with some frequency. It’s also new for me, and I can’t wait to casually refer to “my mechanic” in conversation. Prior to this, “my mechanic” would have just meant the grumpy guy at Jiffy-Lube trying to upsell me on air filters, but now it’s an actual man named Rob who fixes my car and isn’t a drama queen about it. God bless you, Rob.

AND GOD BLESS THIS TRUCK. OK, so I ended up with a Ford F-150, which is bigger than I was thinking. It has a “regular cab” (2 seats) and an “extended bed” (about 8′ in the back) and it RULES. It has a little less than 100,000 miles on it, and it hails from the distant past of 1997. I think the kids call that vintage! It smells like an ashtray, has no fabric remaining on the ceiling, and has neither a CD player NOR a cassette player—radio only. The windows crank down with a handle and the A/C doesn’t seem to work and it has shitty gas mileage and manual locks and needs new brakes and eventually new tires and it’s MAYBE the best $1,200 I’ve ever spent.

The only radio station I can get to work reliably is the one that plays pop-country music, which feels wildly appropriate because Ford F-150s have got to be the most-referenced automobile in modern country music. Accordingly, I named the car Boondock, which has got to be the most-referenced geographic region in modern country music, aside from “America.”

I love it so much. I’m using it constantly. It takes the complication and headache out of SO MANY THINGS—getting trash to the dump, disposing of brush, hauling lumber and gravel and mulch and concrete and furniture and a pile of beautiful antique doors a flipper ripped out of an old house and left on the side of the road. I feel…I don’t know, empowered? to take on big projects and get some major shit done. It might seem silly but honestly every time I get into it I just feel giddy and grateful that it’s now a part of my life. Maybe I am a car person, after all.

Nah. But I love my beater pick-up and I can’t want to show you what we’ve been up to!

**Addendum: do yourself a favor and don’t buy a car in this manner. Get it looked at by a mechanic first, pay for the CarFax report, maybe even drive more than one before committing. Listen to your mom.  

Life
Tagged:

My Upstairs Bathroom Refresh: The Big Reveal!

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.

For the end of the tub, I picked up this simple 15″ wide Diamond NOW Arcadia kitchen cabinet (currently on sale!) which has a drawer above and an open cabinet below. I have a plan!

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!

The glass handles are vintage, but Lowe’s carries these guys that are similar, as well as an impressive collection of glass bin pulls that are so super cute!

Up on the ceiling, we have this adorable little deco light fixture I blogged about a while ago. $10! I still love that little light.

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:

PLUMBING
Valve: $137.40
Shower Valve Trim: $19.53
Shower arm and flange: $8.99
Tub Spout: $25.68
Plumbing pipe + assorted fittings: $21.22

ELECTRIC
12/2 Romex Cable: $15.87
Lightswitch: $8.48

TILE
True Porcelain Arabescato Gold Polished tile: $243.62
Schluter Edge Trim: $8.83
Spacers: $9.98
Thinset: $24.98
Grout: $33.99
Caulk: $8.48

CARPENTRY
Crown Molding: $37.89
Cabinet: $124.00
Chair Rail: $15.56

DECOR
Anaglypta Wallpaper: $184.74
Vanity Light: $100.98
Paint: $33.96

GRAND TOTAL: $1,064.18

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!!

Bathroom Update! OH HEY, FLOORS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So do you, admit it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FUN TIMES WITH HISTORY. Nerd.

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

I Have Got to Do Something About This Bathroom.

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

Just kidding, it’s 4 years.

Actually wait, 5 years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s called elegance, look it up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then your secrets.

Back to Top