Monthly Archives: November 2012

There’s a carcass in my kitchen!

One bright day this fall, I walked into the kitchen to find Eric leaning back against the sink, contemplating the cabinets on the other side of the room. He’d just removed the Formica countertops. We were hoping to reconfigure the original cabinet bases, preserving the past but giving them new life with snazzy self-closing drawers and space-efficient pull-outs. I pulled up a sink and leaned beside him. We stared at the sad spectacle before us and said in unison, “We have to buy new cabinets.” Save the old ones? What were we thinking?

Really, there wasn’t anything useable left. The base cabinets didn’t have boxes like the ones you see today … just some wimpy framing that couldn’t support modern hardware. The drawers had worn Oregon Trail-like grooves in their tired old wooden supports.

So off we went to IKEA to get an idea of what’s available at a price we could afford. Hard to believe, I know, but we truly didn’t foresee new cabinets in our original plans. Now, I love IKEA, but nothing we saw there quite hit the mark. Nice designs and features, but too modern, too … Scandinavian. So we went home to ponder our kitchen some more.

That’s when we noticed (this is hard to admit … are we blind?) that the cabinets under the uppers were only 19 inches deep. And the peninsula cabinet was–you guessed it! Also 19 inches deep because its back wall was an actual 4-inch wall. Twenty-nine years of groping and cussing into its dark depth and I never realized it could have been even darker and deeper. While we have plenty of room to make the peninsula the standard 24-inch depth, we’re stuck with 19 inches on the other side to allow enough clearance between cabinet and fridge. In other words, our solution of buying stock cabinets died a quick death. And custom cabs are definitely not in the budget. Can you guess where this is going?

So … b’bye, old cabinets … thank you for your long service. (I wonder if someone will kick me to the curb when I’m 99 years old.) Duke kept a close eye on the demo. This is where his food lived, and suddenly… it was gone.

See what else was gone? Hint: see the floor where the cabinets used to be? The fir flooring that covers the rest of the house was mysteriously missing here. We could see basement through knotholes and cracks in the shiplap subfloor. Eric brought the sunken footprint up to grade with plywood.  I painted the interior of the upper cabinet a soft green; I’ll paint the IKEA sideboard white with a dark top to match the cabinets.

Meanwhile, down in the basement shop … Eric is 6′-2″, and the joists are 5′-9″.  He’s been spending a lot of time down there, building our custom cabinets. I’m afraid he’ll be shaped like Quasimodo by the time he’s done. I snapped this picture as he delivered his first baby. Push, basement, push!

Suddenly, there was a carcass in our kitchen! (What I’ve always called cabinet boxes are called carcasses in some of our DIY books.)  Duke examined the bin that will hold his food.

Eric assembled the corner cabinet upstairs, IKEA-style, because it was too big to come up the stairs whole. Then he added the top framing that will support the counters. I’ve always had good visualization skills, which has its pros and cons. It’s great to be able to mentally slip into a floor plan and walk around, and being able to imagine exactly what a room will look like is really helpful for our renovation projects … but because I can “see” the results before they happen, I can get complacent. (I lived with plastic sheeting lining my tub for years before I tiled the walls because in my mind I could see the tile.) So you might look at these carcasses and wonder how it’ll all turn out, but to me, they’re already beautiful!

Happy Thanksgiving from OB2C!


Domestic archeology

The vertical dig

You know when you have a sunburn that’s beginning to peel, and you just have to grab that piece of snakeskin and see how big a sheet you can pull off? It’s irresistible. That’s what happened when I looked at some loose wallpaper in the breakfast room. I knew a couple different patterns of wallpaper were under all the layers of paint. I’d indulged in peeling before, over behind the fridge. So I picked … and I pulled … and picked and pulled some more. Until I created this. Oops.

The yellow-and-white plaid with cheery cherries is from the 70’s (Eric remembers the pattern from his youth). Under it is a much older paper with red trellises and gray ivy vines, handpainted little red starbursts and stripes of tiny silver leaves. (Click the photo to see the detail.) I believe this is the original kitchen wallpaper because it’s the same color scheme as the gray and red geometric linoleum that’s in the back hall, under today’s laminate. When I picture either of these busy prints covering the entire kitchen, my eyes cross!

Of course, I had to keep peeling–I couldn’t stop until I got to a point where the paper was once again adhered to the wall. But inevitably, when you’re peeling that sunburn, you go too far and—ouch! Uh-oh … what’s this? Some loose plaster. Hmm … I thought this wall was in good shape. Let me say here, I know real renovators would gut the whole room and start from scratch. But we’re not fixin’ what ain’t broke. We have enough on our hands just replacing cabinets, flooring, counters, lighting, and paint. I don’t want to get into plaster repair. But oh dear … now look what I’ve done! The wall is practically bleeding.

Whoever papered these walls didn’t properly tuck the paper into the corner. They just kind of swooped it around the corner like a banked track. Close enough! I sliced into the corner and kept peeling (thinking, what have I gotten myself into?) and finally, finally … peeled it back to a point where the paper stuck to the plaster and the plaster stuck to the lath. The broken plaster was a bit powdery, making me wonder if it’s been water damaged. I’ve never noticed moisture in this wall in the 29 years I’ve lived here, so maybe it’s just, well … old. Or maybe the damage was caused when we removed the plastic tiles.

A large tub of spackle later, and it’s much better. Apply bondo, sand, repeat. I’m pleased—feels quite smooth and ready for paint. See the new bead board paneling that replaced the white plastic tiles? So far it’s only primered … waiting for its coat of glossy white.

The horizontal dig

While I was away on a business trip, Eric lit into the floor with a variety of Medieval-looking tools. We could see the layers where the built-up floor formed a small cliff that we had to jump off to enter the dining room. I installed the black and white checkerboard commercial tile in 1995. I liked the look, but the tile was hard to keep clean and never had the shine I’d hoped for.

The checkerboard covered some ugly Mediterranean-inspired 70’s vinyl, which lay on a bed of particle board, and, last but not least, was swirling ochre, dark red, and black linoleum.

This was not what I expected. I thought we’d find gray and red inlaid linoleum like on the back porch. Had the gray and red layer been removed? Is the ochre stuff original? I sure can’t picture it with the red and gray wallaper. We may never know. The ironic twist is that this old pattern is almost the reverse, colorwise, of what we intend to install: Forbo Marmoleum, Granada pattern.

This ochre layer will also be removed before we have the new floor installed. For now, we’re enjoying the old lino even though it’s scuffed and scarred.  It’s proving its boxer-and-kitty resistance and feels good under foot. And if I drop some crumbs, I dare ya to find ’em!

With these layers gone, our kitchen floor has lost nearly 3/4 inch of elevation, and is now level with the fir floor in the dining room. No more cliff to scale!

Sparks fly!

Our house runs on extension cords. Yeah, I know, it’s not safe, but what else can we do when we have only one outlet in each bedroom? None in the dining room. Three in the living room—one that actually holds onto the plugs and two that have lost their grip, so the plugs fall out unless I bend the prongs outward. You get the picture.

The kitchen is just as bad. The only 120 V outlet is behind the fridge, so the fridge shares it with a multiplug adapter and two extension cords: one for the microwave and toaster on the left, and one that runs behind the stove to the coffee pot and cats’ drinking fountain on the right. Almost every outlet in the house (all 10 of them) leads to something like this:

Much of the house is still on the original knob and tube system, with an occasional outlet rewired with Romex. The 150 amp panel left no room for expansion—but at least wasn’t a fuse box. The wires still passed from the panel through the ancient (but now gutted) fuse box, which looked too scary for words.

Eric removed the asbestos siding in the back hall (which, sadly, covers the entire house), and the old shingles beneath it. You can see the layers behind the old panel at left. Click on this photo to magnify the horror.

We’re incredibly lucky to have found a reliable, reasonable electrician. Casey installed our new 200 amp panel in an accessible (and legal) position, and a new masthead outside. A new circuit heads upstairs for future attic power, and another down to the basement. An outlet appeared on each wall of the little breakfast room, which now has more outlets than any other room in the house! The inspector said he’s never had to write up Casey on anything. Now that’s the kind of contractor you want!

Cutting over the wiring to the new panel, Casey unplugged the stove and disconnected it at the old panel. That’s when Eric and I, standing in the living room, heard the outlets start to pop and zzzap … smoke curled up from the TV. YIKES! (I’ll always remember that moment Roy Lichtenstein-style.)

Casey threw the main breaker and headed off to the crawlspace to investigate, where he discovered someone (not us!) had connected a 120 V wire to the stove’s 240 V ground. When he disconnected the stove circuit, 240 backfed into the 120 system. Believe me, when that happens, you want your electrician to be on the premises! Fortunately, all of our electronics are on surge protectors, which did their jobs. Anything that wasn’t protected fried, including our brand spanking new microwave. I’m thinking, rewiring the whole house might be a good idea. One of these days that will happen.

This is a good start: the new panel—but no more scary, cobwebby fuse box. The wall eventually will be reshingled and painted to match the exterior, a nod to the back porch’s beginnings.

Secrets of the past, revealed

Isn’t it interesting to look at a picture of an elderly person (or in the mirror, for that matter!) and compare it to their image when they were young? Occasionally we get to do something like that as we poke around our house. We find clues to what originally existed, like patches where radiator pipes once pierced the floor, or the shadow of a tiny corner sink in my already small bedroom closet. I like to imagine how people lived here over the years: what they looked like, what they wore, how they went about their daily routines, and how they reacted to the events that shaped their world. Those mysteries are part of the charm of living in an old house.

What will we find when we dig into the kitchen? Every time we open up a wall I hope we find a windfall of thousands of dollars, stashed for a rainy day and long forgotten. No such luck … yet.

So, let the renovation begin! We start the demo with the white plastic tile that lines the walls. They pop off willingly, exposing stinky mastic.  (What’s in that stuff? I don’t really want to know!) I’ve lived with these tiles for 28 years because initially I thought they had a kind of funky, shabby-chic charm … but I finally have to admit that they are just plain shabby. Time for them to go.

Then comes the dusty work of busting through the mastic, plaster, and lath, down to the studs. That’s when we discover another house secret. I’ve always figured that the kitchen was remodeled in the late 1940s. The arch between the kitchen and breakfast room and the little round shelves on the end of the peninsula are just like the remodel my dad, a kitchen designer, did for my grandma at that time.

Our back porch was probably enclosed as part of this project. Before that, it had been open, perhaps with half walls. With the tiles and lath and plaster gone, we can see that the back of the peninsula cabinet is framed as a wall … which matches the odd chopped-off wall next to the upper cabinets. The breakfast room had originally been a separate room–a butler’s pantry! That’s why the ironing board cabinet is there (when I moved in it still held an ironing board.) Why have I never noticed that the window and door trim doesn’t include the angled piece that finishes off every other window in the house?

As the kitchen is confugred today, it’s light and bright, even during a Seattle winter. But it must have been quite dark with the breakfast room’s east-facing windows hidden in a pantry.

White-painted bead board paneling will replace the tiles. But first … we need a little electrical work done.