Good on Paper; Terrifying IRL


I think my plans are greater than my ability to put up with getting there – but it’s far too late. My plan looks so nice and neat. My house does not.

I’ve ripped out most of the old second-floor bath down to the joists (the rest still has to be done), torn out three plaster walls, opened joist space to run new plumbing (and lifted those floorboards in a toothed pattern so they look right when they go back– that’s a bitch of a job), and will be rerouting some HVAC this weekend. I also need new electric, which I’m trying to talk myself out of doing, but my bank account has different ideas.

On the left above is what was a kitchen (for what was the second-floor apartment). I’m putting a second bath there, and will eventually turn the front of it into the laundry room (which has to wait until I redo the kitchen on the first floor, so I can run a drain to the basement in the wall. I couldn’t bear tearing out the kitchen counter and cabinets right now on top of everything else.) That one will almost certainly be done first, because I had to order the clawfoot tub so my plumber knows exactly where to put the drain and water lines (it’s in the front hallway right now. Of course). And the sink has been in my garage for a year. (I should get a toilet….) The floor boards I uncovered in there are in pretty good shape and already sanded, though I’ll need to sand a bit more before applying a finish. That has been the only good surprise.


What was the bathroom is currently a disaster zone.

In “my” bath, I’ve uncovered mold in the sub floor around the toilet (and on the back of the waste-pipe access wall in the pantry below – blech), more knob-and-tube wiring and the craziest jigsaw puzzle of sub floors I’ve ever seen. Plus I can’t get the tile off the tub wall, so the entire wall is having to come out in sheets of tile backer, with all the tile and mastic intact; I have only one of those out so far. (And then there’s the cast iron tub….)

What was a narrow hallway (and dead space) will be my shower, accessed through the original door into the bathroom. But before I build that, I have to tear down more plaster and put a door from my bedroom through to the bath.

Plaster is heavy. And dusty.


All this open floor will be the walk-in shower.

The plumbers are here now, running all the water and waste lines, and taking out the still-live gas pipe from the old stove that I keep tripping over. I suspect it will take multiple days for them to get everything done – and that’s OK. It gives me a short and welcome break from what has turned out to be punishing physical labor. (This is not my first bath rodeo, but I seem to have forgotten the pain and suffering from last time – also, I’m a decade older.)


All the waste lines in the new bath are being tied into the already existing 4″ pipe in the old bath. This limited the layout a bit, but saves a lot of headache and, more important, a lot of cash.

When I started, I thought I could get at least one bathroom on the second floor up and running before Christmas. Hilarious. I’m now shooting for April Fool’s Day.


The most vexing problem has been cat wrangling – two of them are awfully interested in the interstitial space.

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‘Tools,’ by John Updike


I’d not read much of John Updike’s poetry until recently, (though I’ve long counted his “Gertrude and Claudius” (2000) and “The Centaur” (1963) among my favorite contemporary novels). It’s engaging stuff, and this one in particular spoke to me as I used my great-grandfather’s farriers’ pliers to pull nails this weekend.


Tell me, how do the manufacturers of tools
turn a profit? I have used the same clawed hammer
for forty years. The screwdriver misted with rust
once slipped into my young hand, a new householder’s.
Obliviously, tools wait to be used: the pliers,
notched mouth agape like a cartoon shark’s; the wrench
with its jaws on a screw; the plane still sharp enough
to take its fragrant, curling bite; the brace and bit
still fit to chew a hole in pine like a patient thought;
the tape rule, its inches unaltered though I have shrunk;
the carpenter’s angle, still absolutely right though I
have strayed; the wooden bubble level from my father’s
meagre horde. Their stubborn shapes pervade the cellar,
enduring with a thrift that shames our wastrel lives.

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Anger Management


This is one heinous bathroom.

After writing two checks on November 9 (one to the ACLU, the other to Planned Parenthood), I gathered my implements of destruction and started hitting things with a vengeance. I’m still angry, but at least I’m making progress on the long-overdue bathroom rehab.

First to go was that stunning gold-tone mirror; behind its strip of lovely lights was a bit of a shock, in the form of exposed wiring.


I’m no electrician, but I’m certain that’s not to code.

With that monstrosity relegated to the ever-growing trash heap, I turned to the walls, ripping off the layer of vinyl wallpaper to expose two layers of hardboard attached with plaster bolts and construction adhesive. And whatever that adhesive was, I’m guessing it’s now illegal; it works too well.


Looks better already.

I’m not sure what that material is around the top, but it wraps onto the ceiling and I can’t manage to cut it with any of my various utility blades – so I’m leaving it for now. I don’t want to pull the ceiling down on my head. Yet. It’s going to be a long time before I get around to plaster repair.


Oooooh! Original, but unsalvageable, anaglypta. (That wall is coming down.)

The rough plan is to knock a door through from my bedroom (after I take out the bathtub in the way), and knock through into what was a pantry (behind the wall above) in the second-floor kitchen, and put a bath/shower there.


Hallway to the bath. No, the chimney cupboard doesn’t usually live there.

The door at the back right above is how one currently gets into the bathroom, and the picture is snapped from just outside my bedroom door. The wall straight ahead is the side of the old pantry; that wall is toast. The door to the left is the entryway to the former kitchen, which will become a stupidly large laundry room/second bathroom sometime before the next presidential election (giving me two things to which to look forward). In the meantime, the plumber is going to do the rough-ins…so I’m tearing out that room, too.

Below is the current floor plan(ish). The red line in the hall will be a new wall; the red in the wall will be the new door. Then the hallway (and old pantry) becomes part of my en suite bath. The one possible structural fly in my ointment is that the wall on the right of the hall – the one into which I’m putting a large opening for the shower (basically, doubling the size of the current doorway) – is load-bearing. There are king studs and big beams in my future. Or perhaps my future holds a massive pile of bricks formerly in the shape of a house.

I don’t really have the whole plan worked out yet (like what the heck to do about the pesky HVAC duct). I just had to break something.



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In the Dark, Fixturally Speaking


Back stairs (can’t leave this one on for long, lest I toast the plaster).

I got the old-knob-and-tube electric rewired in February, yet I’m still stumbling in the relative dark. Choosing the “right” lighting fixtures (at an affordable price) seems beyond my skillset.

So I still have installed in three places the bare bulbs my electrician put in almost 10 months ago. Pretty.


The tasteful living room fixture. (This room had no overhead lighting when I bought the place.)

I don’t want them to all be the same, but because you can see simultaneously the fixtures in the front hall, living room and dining room while standing just about anywhere in said three rooms, they have to at least be in casual conversation with one another. I suck at these types of casual conversations.


But hey – until I choose the fixtures, there’s no pressing need to fix & paint the dining room ceiling.

And then there’s the contemporary fixture I rehung in the front hallway, because there, I just couldn’t bear a bare 100-watt bulb. Too gloomy (and the stairs still have no railing…too dangerous to not see where I’m going).


This one would be nice in the right house. Mine is not the right house.

I think I need professional help…on so many levels.

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Get Real

Christopher Schwarz sent me a ridiculous link from Amazon this morning. So I spent a few minutes learning how to use the scroll saw (never touched it until today) to make this far more realistic representation of a “safety assistant push stick” – a potbellied guy in a trucker cap. Perhaps I’ll make a few more, spray paint them orange and put them up for sale.



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6-week Install


It took only an hour or so to actually get a door fit and hung between the hall and one of the two front rooms on the second floor. But add in the distractions and prep work and it took more than a month.

My goal was to get the two doors hung before Woodworking in America (in case I had guests, so that I’d have guest rooms that could be cordoned off from bats). Given a lot of door hanging experience in my past, I figured it would take no more than a couple hours at most. So I got off my butt one Saturday before to haul from the pile of eight doors in the basement the only two that looked like the rest in my home’s interior.

Those doors – solid wood – are heavy.

They didn’t fit. Turns out they’re (probably) from the doorways on the front portion of the house on the first floor; I’d not noticed the 4″ height differential between the public-area doorways and the rest of the place.

So I hauled those back downstairs and scavenged two doors from elsewhere in the house where they’re not needed. But neither is ideal. One of them is painted on the side that faces the varnished woodwork in the hallway, and varnished on the side that faces the room with the painted woodwork. Of course. (I suspect it will be a long time before I get around to stripping either the woodwork or the door – or both.) The other one has a hole where there was a deadbolt; it used to close off the back stairs from the first floor to secure the second-floor apartment. Any guests will just have to live with a 1-1/2″ peephole for a while.

But the hardware needed stripping. Sunday, I cooked the hinges in the slow cooker with a little dish detergent in water. Eight hours later, I scrubbed off most of the gunk (and much of the original paint – oops), wiped the steel with oil, then tackled one door.


Damn thing was off by about 1/8″ using the original hinge mortises in the frame. But I hung it anyway; no time to fuss at that point. My last-minute WIA guest in that room was instructed to not try to close the door all the way; that would break off the point on the moulding at the top of the jamb. (He listened well – no damage. And there were no bats.)

Yesterday, I finally had time to jump back into that fray. After adjusting the mortises and making sure the door fit, I went to drill the holes for the screws. There were, naturally, multiple holes tangent to and overlapping the points where I needed to drill.


I filled those with dowels from the hardware store and waited for glue to dry (and ordered a dowel plate in the meantime; seems like something useful to have around so as to not have to whittle and sand hardware-store dowels for a perfect fit).

As of this morning, about six weeks after I started, that one door is now hung and working perfectly. I’m rather afraid to tackle the other one.

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Books, Baths & Food*

Watching paint dry (to guard against paw prints).

Watching paint dry (in an effort to guard against paw prints).

As I move beyond the “must-do” in this house (taking out the 1950s walls that divided it in two, Romex to replace knob-and-tube wiring, a new roof and windows) and move on to the “want to do,” it becomes clear to me what I value most in a home – and that it hasn’t changed in my adult life.

In order of importance, it’s books, baths and cooking.

My former study (there are matching shelves on the other side of the brick fireplace bump least there were when I sold it!).

My former study, circa 2000 (there are matching shelves on the other side of the brick fireplace bump out…at least there were when I sold it!).

In my last house, the first room to get redone was what became my study; I think it was about three months after I moved in. I asked my contractor friend to design built-ins across one wall to both serve as my desk and hold all my Shakespeare and other schoolwork-related tomes. (That was a ridiculous ask; it took more than one wall of built-ins.)

That study served me well, and doubled as a hand-tool shop after 2010, when I finally built a bench for home. (Having a second-floor shop, though, that shared the room with my computer, was a major impetus for my move.)

I miss my old study most of all. So that’s what I’m working on now in the new place: A wall of built-in bookshelves and cabinets with a large worksurface that has room for my computer.

The top units aren’t quite as wide here, but they’re about 2′ taller, with two more shelves per. It doesn’t really matter…no matter how large, I’d still run out of room. Good thing I can now build more shelves myself.

The only photo I could dredge up was mid-work...which looks far better than the current bath state here.

The only photo I could dredge up from the old place was mid-work…which looks far better than the current bath state here.

The bathrooms here are pretty bad (the first and second-floor ones are functional; the one in the basement is wholly terrifying). At the old place, with a couple years of tool use under my belt, in 2008 or so I ripped out everything down to the studs, laid new tile, put up new drywall, made faux paneling, built a medicine cabinet and installed a fancy glass shower as well as new fixtures.

That’s the next project here, writ large: rip out the current second-floor bath, put a door through to my bedroom, move some walls so there’s room for a shower and soaking tub, put in a floor heating system, then start building it back out. And simultaneously rough in a guest bath, because it will be easier and less expensive that way. (We’ll see what hubris and my pocketbook have to say about that next year, which, in my defense, is only about 1 year behind schedule!).

"Old" kitchen

“Old” kitchen

At the old place, I never liked the kitchen. But I couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it until a lot of other people (potential buyers) didn’t like it either. So I decided, after 12 years of living with it, to rip it out, build new cabinets, blah blah etc. (I’ve already written about it here ad nauseam). The finish was still drying on the countertop and I installed the last built-in piece of furniture the day before I moved out. (The place sold off-listing to friends of friends, just after I’d begun the work.)

It’s a nice kitchen, with fancy, self-closing drawers and plenty of storage. Too bad I never got to cook even one meal in it.

The kitchen here is worse than the old one at the old house (a former tenant seems to have punched a hole in a cabinet front, for example). I won’t be waiting 12 years to redo this one – but it will come well after the books then the bathroom(s), again.

And no…I still haven’t finished the staircase – but I realized in moving the large cases upstairs for the study that having a wide staircase with no rails is excellent when moving, say, large casework upstairs…and that’s an excellent excuse for holding off!

* Is there a synonym for “food” or “kitchen” that starts with “b?” (Alliteration is, after all, the mark of fine literature…)

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