Category Archives: House projects

Crysta the Carpenter

“We’ll make a carpenter out of you yet,” my dad said as I knelt on our makeshift saw horse, carefully lining up the saw against the line I had just drawn with my new T-square.

Yes, folks, Saturday was finally Sawdust Day. Still trying to finish the trim for the new door we installed over a year ago, my dad arrived bright and early with his miter saw, wood and numerous other tools to put up the trim. He had come over last Saturday, too, and left when we realized it was far more complicated than we had anticipated.

But this past Saturday, everything went to plan with no real complications. I made all the miter cuts myself, and we set up a makeshift workbench (empty driveway asphalt barrels with a heavy board across the top) to make the necessary traditional saw cuts. After starting my day with a kettlebell workout, my arms were jelly by the time Dad left. My knee has a nice bruise, too, from pressing against the boards as I cut them.

We had to cut some trapezoids (seriously, my house is FAR from square!), and some of the more interesting cuts left the boards looking like skyscrapers, due to fitting around the concrete slab of the foundation, existing trim and tight angles. In fact, the right side looks like the Sears Tower and the left like the Hancock Center.

But everything fits. We put the puzzle together at least three or four times, finding the right sequence and angles, drawing arrows on the backs so we knew which side had been cut an 1/8 of an inch smaller than the other end to appease the house. And, dagnabit, it FIT.

So Dad left, leaving me with everything I need to finally finish the job. I did the first two coats of stain Sunday and will finish the staining process this week. I went to the Depot this evening and bought one more board – a 1×4 would fit above the door, but to mesh with the existing trim, a 1×6 is in order – and some fresh wood putty, but other than that, I am all set.

I’m almost excited about next weekend when I’ll have the time to install it all. Of course, fingers crossed!

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The Door, Part 736

I installed a new back door last summer (Independence Day, to be exact). My parents, Don and I spent an entire day making the perfectly-square, new door fit with the settled, off-kilter, old house. It took lots of shimming and adjusting, and Dad left me tasked with getting the wood for the trim, staining it, and calling him over to make the perfect miter cuts and install.

Busy schedules, multiple job changes, travel and winter got in our way. Finally, a full year after I bought and stained the wood, Dad came over with his miter saw. And we quickly discovered just how not-square the areas to be trimmed are. In some cases, there’s a full half-inch difference between the top and bottom measurements! So some of the boards fit, but others don’t. Dad and I took very careful, precise measurements, and he went home to make the final cuts.

He comes back this weekend. We’ll dry fit everything (fingers crossed) and then (if all goes well), I’ll stain all the pieces (provided the hosue god consents and blesses us with a proper fit) and install it on my own (fit-pending). Then, once the trim is done, AT LAST I can paint the door and the steps to the basement.

But I’m not getting my hopes up. Some projects never end. With an old house, there are always multiple fun surprises in store.

Finally! A Fence!

I had my new fence all planned out last summer. The money was set aside and I had a detailed blueprint with exact quantities for posts and sections. I was ready to rock and roll.

Then, one of the tenants next door got a new boyfriend who drove a giant conversion van. Every time he came over and parked in their driveway, he slammed into our fence. And not just a little tap, as other tenants had done over time – this was full fledged, fence-shuddering contact. He knocked multiple slats from their moorings. I cringed every time I heard the whine of the engine pull up, because I knew it would be followed by a loud thud.

He didn’t seem very approachable, so I never confronted him. Instead, we talked to the absentee landlord, who really didn’t give a damn but said he’d talk to the tenant.

We really didn’t want to invest the time and money to install a new fence if it was going to be abused so harshly.

But then, in a whirlwind of a few short weeks, the building was vacated and condemned, and the ground began its winter freeze.

We’re ready for the spring thaw to dig holes in the ground – below the frost line of 42”, mind you – and install this new fence. Though we still haven’t determined what to do with the old fence, which is in pretty sorry shape. Maybe stick it in the garage until next year’s Spring Cleanup?

Happy Housiversary to Me!

I’ve been very negligent lately. I don’t really have an excuse, but let’s get back to it.

Today is my third housiversary! I bought this wonderful piece of property three years ago today. That morning, I did my final walkthrough with my realtor to make sure all the issues arising from the inspection had been fixed. We ran through the checklist – toilet properly bolted down, ceiling fan balanced and, most importantly, asbestos wrapped – and headed off to the title company for the closing.

Less than two hours later, I returned, keys in hand, and let myself in. I slowly paced from room to room, marveling in the moment. It had rained earlier that morning, but the sun was breaking out through the clouds. For the first time in all my visits at the house – two looks, writing the offer, the inspection and walkthrough – I could see how sunshine flowed through the windows.

The sunlight illuminated the mess of cobwebs filling every corner and closet. Most of the light fixtures were just naked bulbs. A lightswitch had stopped working sometime between inspection and closing. I noticed that the tiny downstairs bathroom was horribly misaligned – the light fixture, mirror and sink were completely out of sync. And what about the piece of missing trim between the kitchen and bathroom?

All these little things hit me as I realized that I was stepping beyond the stressful-yet-exhilarating homebuying process, into the much more mundane and unknown world of home ownership. Suddenly, it was all my problem. And unlike leases measured in months, there was no time limit on the problems, nor anyone else holding my security deposit dollars to motivate me into action.

I immediately tackled the cobwebs and dust that had accumulated during the year the house sat vacant. The baseball wallpaper in the bedroom was next on the list. But three years later, some of these problems persist.The downstairs bathroom still bugs me every time I’m in there, but not enough to act when other projects are more pressing. The lightswitch was replaced right away, and I’ve only got one bare bulb left. But new projects always spring up with their own costs – in both time and money – and precedence. Obviously I’m going to take care of the geyser in the basement wall before I worry about a crooked mirror.

But in the past three years, I’ve realized that if I take them as them come, I can stay on top of everything, or at least ensure everything’s still functioning and the house stays warm and dry. Rather than trying to do everything at once, slow and steady is indeed winning the race.

I hope the same can be true with this blog. Rather than trying to write for a book or The Great American Novel, if I stick to steady, shorter posts, maybe I’ll make some progress.

It’s worth a try.

Centralizing the Chaos

One of the reasons I love my house is its vast amounts of storage space. Coming from a one bedroom apartment to an entire house, complete with walk-in closets, a garage, and a full basement meant I had plenty of room to spread out!

I’ve spent nearly three years storing things willy-nilly, incorporating Don’s things with my own with no rhyme or reason. And now we’re in quite a pickle.

As I’ve accumulated tools and household items, they’ve dispersed. Extra nails? In the garage. Leftover plastic sheeting? Back hall closet. Tubes of caulk? Two in the hall closet, one in the garage and one in the basement. Leftover paint? It’s all centralized in the coal room in the basement, but the paintbrushes? Those would be in the garage. This means the simple search for, say, a flat-head screwdriver can pose maddening as I try to remember where I used it last. And in winter, the prospect of venturing into the cold, across the icy driveway and into the dark garage is never inviting.

So I’ve embarked on a mission to organize. For Christmas, my parents got me a huge, heavy duty utility cabinet for the basement. Getting the cabinet to my house in the first place was interesting, as I had to wait until my sister (and her truck) was available to bring it over. Then, we struggled to even get the monster in the house in the first place, so it sat on the back stairs for two weeks until a friend of Don’s came over and helped out. I started building the cabinet (comprised of approximately 792 pieces) on Super Bowl Sunday and made pretty good headway, overcoming the non-verbal, pictorial directions and identical-looking parts labeled W and BB and GF. But then, I got to the point where I needed a second set of hands, and the Super Bowl was about to start, so I put the project on hold. And it sat for another week and a half, during which I was worried the snow melt would flood into the basement.

But it didn’t, and Don and I finished assembling the cabinet one evening. We had a bit of a problem when we discovered that the cabinet – at 75 inches tall – is too tall for much of the basement. We found one place where it would fit, but it took some wrangling to get it around the ductwork. And now as I roam the house and find random home repair/maintenance/improvement materials, they’re beginning to migrate to a single point. No longer will my medicine cabinet boast a putty knife all its own, and the pliers in the kitchen drawer have given notice.

Heck, we may even put a pegboard in the basement to further organize things!

Fabulous New Windows

Last Monday, with an arctic cold front encroaching on the Midwest, my new windows were finally installed. They’re fabulous. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Monday was a seasonable day in the upper 20s, and the installers worked carefully so there was never more than one hole in the side of the house at any given time. By the time they left, we had five new windows – three in the living room, and two in the office.

The next day, the bottom dropped out and we had a series of days where we never broke 0 degrees, with overnight windchills hovering around -40 degrees. And the windows met their first test with fortitude and grace. No drafts. I noticed the biggest difference touching the glass itself. The new windows felt cooler than the room temperature, of course, but not bad at all. The old windows still elsewhere in the house were caked in sheets of ice and were barely touchable.

Definitely worth it. I just hope the heat bills reflect it.

Breaking My Broken Windows

I’ve had two cracked window panes on my front porch since I moved in. They’ve both grown a bit, likely due to freeze/thaw cycles. I always thought replacing a pane of glass would be expensive, so I put off repairs. Plus, since both affected windows are on the porch, there was no direct effect on the interior of the house itself, though certainly a colder porch does lead to a colder house.

But they’ve always bugged me. So when I was in Lowe’s in early October and saw that you could buy sheets of glass cut to size, I jumped on it. Sure, it was only single pane glass, but for the porch, that suffices. Lowe’s didn’t cary glazing putty, but Ace did.

I brought my measurements into Lowe’s and after a search for an employee who actually knew how to use the glass-cutting machine, I had my sheet of glass. Well, actually, the first one he cut broke while he was wrapping it up, but the second one made it home unscathed. I spent an hour carefully prying the window frame apart – several coats of paint served as glue. Finally, I release the lower pane and laid it out on the floor.

That’s when I realized I had mis-measured the glass. So I re-measured – thrice, this time – and trotted back to Lowe’s.

This time, we went through two broken sheets before coming up with a third one cut to my new and improved measurements. We wrapped it carefully and I brought it home.

This time, I carefully taped an X across the old glass and gingerly tapped with a mallet until it broke. I scraped out the decades-old, dried-out putty and started putting new glazing compound into the groove. When it came to lay the new glass in place, it didn’t fit. I flipped it around, and it still didn’t fit. Annoyed, I couldn’t understand how my new measurements – taken three times – could be wrong again! So I measured the glass and compared it to the scrap of paper still in my pocket. The measurements in my pocket didn’t match the glass. I had been very careful to throw away the old, incorrect measurements to make sure I gave the right ones to Lowe’s. But the guy had cut it wrong.

By this point, it was about 6:30 on a Sunday night. I called Lowe’s and learned that they closed at 7:00, so I hopped in the car and ran back to the store. At first, the bored high school student working at Customer Service didn’t want to allow an exchange, saying that custom-cut pieces can’t be returned. I was welcome to buy another sheet, though. Luckily, the employee who had cut the piece wrong happened to walk by, saw me with the glass, and intervened, shrugging when he realized his mistake. After two failed attempts (there’s got to be a better method that doesn’t cause breakage 2/3 of the time!), I got my piece cut – and verified its dimensions myself – and left the store.

By the time I got home, it was good and dark. I massaged the glazing compound a bit to soften it up and lined the window up – it was ready to go. I started to slide it into place and then asked for Don’s help. It fit perfectly. But then, in the process of filling the groove with more glazing putty, it cracked. We laughed. It was 8:30 on a Sunday night. All the hardware stores were closed. I was booked on a flight to DC at 6 AM the next morning and hadn’t started packing. So we used packing tape to seal it up.

So, eight panes of glass later, my window still has a packing tape bandaid. I’m very hesitant to try again. At this point, I could have just paid someone to do it for the amount of time I’ve spent.

And that’s the thing about home ownership. You have to figure out the value of your time. Sure, on paper, replacing a broken window pane would take $20 and an hour. But inexperience and working with fragile materials may mean that it’s worth hiring a professional.

Next step: I’ll investigate the cost of bringing the whole sash into a glass place and leaving it to the pros. And hopefully I can get rid of the packing tape once and for all. Heck, I might even fix the second window, too.

2008 Plans Recap

A little over a year ago, I started this blog and listed my home improvement/repair plans for 2008. Let’s check in and see how those turned out, shall we?

Replace the back door. Complete! Well, kind of. I did indeed replace the door in July with the help of my parents and boyfriend. However, we’re not yet quite done… I have the trim stained but it needs to be cut to the right size and installed, and, lacking the right saw to do so, it hasn’t happened yet. And I really should put a fresh coat of paint on the door itself – I bought the paint in August but now it’s too cold. I can’t wait until I finish and can actually enjoy the completed result – though I’ve already noticed the far superior insulation compared to previous winters!

Install a utility sink in the basement. Not yet, but now that it’s winter, the need is even more pressing.

Fix the two broken panes of glass on the porch. I kind of replaced one but have to redo it. The story merits its own post.

Remove the wall AC unit in the living room – a remnant of the days before central air – and replace it with a window. COMPLETE as of Monday! And it looks so much better and brighter!

Replace some windows. COMPLETE as far as my budget currently allows. Monday, I replaced three windows in the living room and both in the office, just in time for the cold snap. And yegads, what a difference.

Now to prioritize for 2009… and complete the delinquencies for 2008.

Dim Expectations?


A coworker recently redid his bathroom. Of all the things they replaced, he said the very best investment was a dimmer switch for the lights.

I had never really thought about it, but I can see the value. My bathroom has a Hollywood Barbie strip of lights which could probably land a plane. They’re far too bright early in the morning and late at night. I keep a small nightlight plugged in to ease the transition in the morning.

A previous owner must have had the same thought. When I first looked at the house, there was a very odd dimmer switch in the bathroom. At some point between the inspection and move-in, it stopped working, so I replaced it with a standard switch.

I’m tucking this away for when the bathroom project becomes reality.

Window Shopping

I’ve made my decision for the biggest house project to date: replacement windows. Hooray!

As is my method, I started small. I wanted to replace the living room window – ancient, drafty and in serious need of repair. It’s a relatively narrow window but behind the couch, so the draft impacts my comfort. I spend the majority of my conscious at-home time in that room. Last winter, the glass began separating from the wood frame, so I caulked it back together, but that was only a temporary solution. Even with an ill-fitting storm window, copious caulk and a sheet of air-supposedly air-tight window plastic, there was definitely a breeze.

While I was at it, I decided I might as well replace the wall air conditioning unit with a picture window. The previous owner installed central air, but left the wall unit as a huge, hulking shrine to the 70s. It’s ugly. And in a room with relatively little natural light, it surely doesn’t help. So I’ll replace it with a picture window – it’s too high on the wall to merit an opening window, but the light will be great. (Anyone need a giant wall unit in working order? Let me know!) The squirrels will be sad to lose their perch, though – and the cat will miss hearing them scratch around on the outside of the unit.

I priced out those two windows at Home Depot and Menards and looked closely at the current situation. Then I decided that this is one job worth hiring a professional. Windows need to be done right. You can fudge a bit on a paint job – it’s easy to redo or touchup. Yardwork has a huge margin of error. But windows? Screw those up and you’ll pay in energy loss, discomfort and possibly even security. Plus, the one living room window appears to have some rot around it. I was afraid what it will look like when the old window comes out – and with a hole in the side of the house, you’re under pressure to act quickly – no time for additional research.

So I asked around, did lots of research on R and U values and energy efficiency, types of vinyl, and other insomnia-worthy topics. I spent a fair amount of time at the National Fenestration Rating Council website, research brands and their ratings. And after having several conversations with companies and two in-home estimates, I made my decision. Plus, by ordering now – they’re all custom sizes, of course – they’ll be ready in early January, so I’ll get a winter installation discount! I decided if I was having someone do it, I might as well do more than the two I originally planned. If I was already doing two in the living room, I should probably do the third one – which is a giant 4×6 feet! – between the living room and porch. And while I’m at it, the office windows are pretty decrepit. Since I’m working at home more, that will become a more pressing issue in a few weeks when winter really sets in. The previous two winters, I’ve been able to avoid that room, but not so this winter! So I’m doing all five.

I learned a lot. For example, the living room windows are original, circa 1890, according to both estimators. The original pulleys and weights are still intact – and one estimator told me to ask the installers for them, to ensure they insulate the gap they’ll leave behind. The ones in the office are a bit newer – they guessed 1930s or 40s.

So that’s my window shopping story. Admittedly, it’s not as interesting – or cheap – as window shopping in a mall or Michigan Avenue. But come January, when my living room is much cozier, it will be well worth it.