Learning from design mistakes: IKEA/Semihandmade Kitchen edition

When Jeremy and I decided to take on the roles of general contractor and designer, we knew we’d make mistakes along the way. So far, we’ve made several mistakes that revealed themselves only after purchasing or installing materials. The most frustrating mistake we’ve made was in the design of the kitchen. I’m sharing what we learned so you don’t make the same mistakes we did.

Mistake one: Wall cabinets too high above the countertop.

Our house came blessed with very tall ceilings. I wanted to take advantage of this height and install a VERY tall pantry with tons of vertical storage space. In our kitchen plan, I placed a 15”-high wall cabinet on TOP of an 85”-high cabinet like this:

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Industry standards should be followed for a reason. The wall cabinets were too far away from the countertops below

The problem with this design is that all the wall cabinets must be mounted at the same height as the highest point in my pantry. I thought it would be fine to have our wall cabinets “higher than standard” but when they were installed it was immediately apparent what a horrible choice I had made. I could barely reach into the wall cabinet (to grab plates/glasses) let alone reach the higher shelves. Luckily we realized this error on the first day of our kitchen installation, so Jeremy and I rented a van and drove to IKEA to purchase a different size pantry. In the end, we lost only 5 inches of vertical storage space by replacing the super tall pantry with a 90” high cabinet instead.

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While this mistake was relatively easy to remedy (and IKEA gave us store credit for the two cabinets we returned), it unfortunately means I will have to buy 2 new doors from Semihandmade and paint them again (remember this post about how many rounds of spraying they required?) because the ones I already have no longer fit. Ugh.

Lesson learned: While I wish that someone at IKEA’s kitchen department had pointed out this error, I suppose I have myself to blame. I knew I was going against industry standard but thought the vertical storage space was worth it. It was not. Do not repeat my mistake!

Mistake two: Purchased wrong size panel for under island.

The process of buying our doors and side panels from Semihandmade was a little nerve-wracking: I sent them our kitchen plan from IKEA’s 3D planning website and Semihandmade sent back a list of all the doors and side panels we would need. It is the customer’s responsibility to review and ensure the sizes of the doors and panels are all correct. Well I made the mistake of buying a huge side panel for under our island that was actually too small! Grrrr. The piece I bought was only 26 inches tall, when it should have been 36 inches tall. (FYI 36 inches is the standard countertop height in kitchens–the key to purchasing the correct size panel!). The piece I bought was actually meant to cover the side of a refrigerator. Blast! What a waste of time and money. Oh well, now I need to order the correct piece and paint it blue. We decided not to delay installing the rest of the kitchen since it would take several weeks to receive and paint this final piece–so for several weeks, the underside of our kitchen island was ‘naked’

Panel missing under the island thanks to my mistake!
Panel missing under the island thanks to my mistake!

Lesson learned: Make sure all side panels that go next to an island or base cabinet are 36 inches high!

BONUS lesson learned: IKEA has an ‘as-is’ sale section near check-out and they sell individual kitchen items for $20 per piece. We decided to buy this one panel from IKEA instead of semihandmade, and saved over $300 by buying an ‘as-is’ piece.  If you’re painting your semihandmade cabinets yourself, I highly recommend buying your side panels at IKEA and saving a bunch of cash.

Mistake three: Cabinet door paint dried poorly

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Scary close up of the strange paint job. Why so many bumps?!

This one I am perhaps most upset about. The final round of painting our cabinets did not go so well. I have no idea why but let’s blame the weather–it was less than 40 degrees outside when I applied the final coat of paint. And it dried TERRIBLY! It looks like my cabinets have acne. We didn’t have time to sand and re-paint before the installers came in December, so we decided to just install them now and deal with re-painting them in the spring. The good news is that only about 3 or 4 pieces turned out so bad they’ll need to be re-painted. The rest look amazing.

Lesson learned: Get your doors professionally painted or wait for warm weather to do it yourself.

Some tips on how to design your kitchen correctly:

  • Ensure there is enough clearance for people to comfortably walk through doorways, passageways, hallways, and around islands. We decided to make the passageway between the fridge and the island 47 inches wide, which is industry standard for “two cooks in the kitchen.” We also made sure the clearance between the island and any obstacle was 39-40 inches. The minimum you’d want to go is 36 but we bought huge appliances so we needed the extra clearance.
  • Similarly, make sure there’s enough clearance for someone to stand in front of the appliances with the doors open. At another property we looked at, you couldn’t swing the fridge open while standing in front of it because the island was in the way.
  • If you buy your kitchen at IKEA, make sure you fully understand where the white cabinet interiors will show around your doors and panels. We were surprised after our kitchen was installed that you could see a sliver of the white cabinet frame which we did NOT like. So we installed a second piece of panel/filler to hide the frame and make it look more custom built in.

How to put an outlet in a brick wall

You know that class in third grade science where you learn how to make a circuit? The one with the light bulb attached to a battery? Well that’s the last time I thought about how electricity works. So when Jeremy said “we can do it ourselves!” about installing new outlets in our house, I thought he was insane. Nevertheless, he persisted. This man was relentless in his pursuit of our new outlets.

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Figuring out where the outlets should go in our island

When the electricians told him it was impossible to install an outlet on our brick wall, he said “I will prove them wrong!” And prove them wrong he did.

When the guy at the hardware store told us to just hire a handyman and that we ‘wouldn’t want to buy any more tools,’ Jeremy said “screw him, I’m buying an oscillating saw!”

When I said let’s just hire someone to cut a hole in our kitchen island to install an outlet for appliances, he said “we can do it ourselves!”

And dammit, he DID do it. Jeremy is the most determined person in the world and meets these challenges head on. He views new tasks as learning opportunities and genuinely does learn from them. My career as an electrician may have ended in third grade, but Jeremy’s is just getting started.

We knew we wanted to install new outlets on the main floor of our house to comply with code and provide enough grounded, 3-prong outlets necessary for modern life. But most of our walls are brick, making it difficult to install the electric boxes that are normally hiding behind drywall in newer homes. So Jeremy bought a chisel and hammered away at the brick, chipping out a line for the wire and a rectangle for the box to sit in.

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He slapped some wet compound in the whole and squished the box in, letting it dry and cement in place. Then he compounded over the chiseled out area to hide it from sight—three layers of compound with sanding in between each one.

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Applying compound cement to cover the chipped out area
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Compounding over the holes

Now it’s nicely painted and you’d never know all the work that went into it!

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Final product! (Minus the baseboard trim)

As for getting an outlet in our island, he drilled a hole through the floor and pulled the wires up through the floor (we had asked our electrician to “rough in” the wires a month ago for this purpose–the wires were chilling in our basement, dangling from the rafters). Then he sawed a rectangular hole into the side panel of our island and installed an outlet in it!

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Using our brand new oscillating saw to cut a hole for the outlet
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So proud of our new outlet on the side of our island!

Now all we have to do is get the countertop installed and cover the outlet with a plate and BAM! We have a fully functioning island. Oh did I mention he did the same thing for the power to our dishwasher and garbage disposal?

I happily sat this one out but I certainly learned a lot about how electricity works!

Painting our kitchen cabinets

 

For our kitchen, we bought the cabinet frames from IKEA to keep the budget under control, but opted to purchase the door fronts from a higher-end vendor called Semihandmade. I had discovered this company a year ago and was so intrigued by their business model. They design high quality, real-wood doors that exactly fit all IKEA kitchen cabinets, for clients who want an affordable kitchen from IKEA but desire a higher-end, more custom look. We opted for the DIY option, which meant they’d delivered raw, unfinished cabinet doors that we could paint whatever color we desired. This option was appealing for several reasons: 1) obviously the budget–it was the least expensive product they sell and 2) I didn’t love their color options (they only had about 10 color options that were all very neutral) and was interested in picking the PERFECT color that was just right for me.

Well let me tell you, painting these doors was a WAY greater endeavor than I could have expected. I had read blog after blog of other women who had painted the DIY cabinets themselves but no one ever mentions how time consuming it is, or how heavy these doors are! I opted to apply one layer of primer and then two layers of color.  But since I could only paint one side at a time, that was essentially 6 rounds of spray painting. We decided to use a paint sprayer instead of a brush for a more even application of the paint.

We received the cabinets on November 9th, and had until December 12th when our kitchen was scheduled to be installed to finish all six rounds of spraying. We were limited to days when the weather was not windy, rainy, or snowy (since the spraying was in the back yard), and of course we had to start before 2 PM to beat the early winter sunset. We had less than 5 weeks. Could we make the deadline? We sure were going to try!

November 11: I borrowed the paint spraying gun from our trusted handyman and set to work on the first round of primer. I set up our two saw horses with 2X4s and immediately realized I would need a WAAAAAY larger staging area to paint all 37 individual pieces of wood doors, trim, and panels.

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After a LOT of troubleshooting, I started the first round with primer in the sprayer. I had to get the top of each door, plus the sides. The paint sprayer was a bit fussy and sometimes shot out a large glob of paint. To avoid this, I added water to thin the primer. It took me about an hour to do all 37 pieces, and I cursed SO many times I was afraid of what the neighbors thought. But I learned a lot that first round. We brought the doors inside after a few hours to finish drying.

November 19: I did the same set-up and spray painted the other side of each door with primer. This time was a bit easier since I had already painted the edges, I only had to cover the tops of each piece this time. Plus I applied the lessons I learned in the first round: thin the primer a lot so it’s almost the consistency of whole milk; hold a paper towel below the nozzle to catch those hated paint drips; never let the canister reach near-empty levels.

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November 21: I had the day before thanksgiving off of work and thankfully the weather was a sunny 48 degrees, so I hauled each piece into the back yard yet again for the first round of color application! We selected Benjamin Moore Advance Paint, which is meant for kitchen cabinets–it’s a more expensive paint but it dries extra hard for added durability and longevity. I selected the same dark blue color as our staircase wall, Champion Cobalt, so that once the kitchen is installed, the entire south wall of our home will be the same color.

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First application of the blue paint

November 24: On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my aunt and uncle came over and, like champs, helped to sand down any bumps and paint drips on the doors. Unfortunately some paint dripped down the sides during my previous application and resulted in small pools of paint along the edges. Cardinal and Joanie are professional handymen on boats in Annapolis, so they arrived just when I needed them the most: Cardinal showed me how to sand down the doors while Joanie carefully sanded and cleaned them off. They also helped us move 30 sheets of plywood from the curb into our house (god bless them)!! They worked in beast mode the entire time and I could truly see the Surette genes in action (we hate to slow down and are constantly cleaning things).

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My amazing aunt and uncle carried all our plywood up the stairs for us!

Luckily, this was the FINAL application for the 2 huge pieces and the 6 long skinny pieces, since I am only painting one side of them (they will be screwed into place so we’ll never see their undersides). There are two more applications to go for all the remaining doors. Unfortunately it’s starting to get cold and windy, which means i’ll be spraying outside then quickly bringing them inside to dry for the last two rounds.

November 28: On Friday, the weather was clear and a warm 48 degrees so I took off work and sprayed the remaining cabinets that need a second coat. Unfortunately, my previous spraying technique resulted in highly annoying and ugly drips of paint that dried in small mounds on the edge of some doors. I was not a happy camper. To remove the dried paint bumps, we had to sand, sand, sand down the drips (huge shout out to my friend Elizabeth who helped with 2 hours of sanding on Thursday night!).

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The dreaded dried paint drips!

For this 5th round of spraying, I implemented a new technique where I sprayed 6 doors at one time (the max amount that would fit on the saw horses), then quickly used a foam brush to gently wipe the side edges of each door to remove any excess paint. Then we walked the doors inside our house and laid them out on long pieces of wood to dry overnight. This technique worked SO much better and the next day we happily discovered no cursed paint drips to sand off. Allowing them to dry inside helped avoid small pieces of grass, leaves and other natural debris from landing on the cabinets.

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Friday December 7: Realizing we had less than a week left to finish the last round of painting and allow for adequate dry time, I did the last coat on Friday before leaving for a weekend away. This time I was HYPER efficient and whipped through all the doors as fast as I could. Unfortunately it was freeeeeeeezing cold and my fingers turned bright pink, but I survived and so did the doors! Huzzah!

Now that I am finally done with this gargantuan effort, I simply CAN NOT WAIT for them to be installed this week! We hired a company to install our kitchen for us because we aren’t completely insane and realized we needed help. After this painting saga, I’m not even sure if I like this color any more, but once they are installed I’m sure I will love them in all their glory!

Tips for anyone thinking about spray painting your kitchen cabinets:

  • Benjamin Moore Advance paint is designed for kitchen cabinets, but you need to wait a looooooong time for it to fully dry before touching or moving it. I would recommend a full 24 hours at least–during this time do not stack the doors or allow them to touch each other.
  • Try to set up 2X4s or something else for the doors to sit on as you paint and do NOT move them after they’ve been painted. We didn’t have this luxury but it would be best to keep them where they are after spraying to avoid touching the wet paint. I also noticed after I moved the doors away from the spraying area and onto a drying area that sometimes paint had dripped to the bottom where I couldn’t see it and then dried in and stuck to the surface on which it was drying (which brings me to my next point).
  • Remove any excess paint from the edges of your doors immediately after spraying with a foam brush. This will avoid paint from pooling and drying in bumps along the edge of your cabinets.
  • Spray paint in a garage or covered space if possible–little pieces of grass, leaves, and general nature debris would blow into my yard and get on the doors as they dried. I wish we had a covered place to spray paint but unfortunately we don’t.
  • Do your cabinet painting in the spring or fall! It was probably too cold to do it in November and December, but we had not choice. Paint drys better when the temp is above 50 degrees.
  • Think about where you will put your doors to dry and after they are dry to wait before installation. We moved these heavy doors around almost every room of our house two times during the last month during different phases of the entire home’s renovation, which was not fun (especially the long pieces).

Would I do this again? Not sure–it was a TON of work and I couldn’t spend that time on other renovation activities. Paying a professional would have cost a lot more but the finished product would presumably have fewer imperfections. Am I happy with the outcome? Yes, I’m feeling very accomplished and trying to embrace the small imperfections. Hopefully only I will notice them so please don’t point out any blemishes on my cabinets when you come to visit!

My life as a drywall expert

Two months ago, Jeremy and I installed drywall for the first time in two bedrooms. It was a true learning experience, and thankfully now we are able to put that knowledge to use!

The main floor of our house has gone through EXTENSIVE changes in the last month: We removed all the plaster from the walls and demolished the fake chimney, hired a company to remove the load bearing walls and replace with a single column and 3 support beams, had a team of four electricians rip out all the old wiring and install new wiring + recessed lights + light switches + outlets. The main floor is finally ready for us to close in all the open walls, beams, and column.

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We need to close in all the open beams and columns with drywall

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Last Monday, I got to work measuring the 4 sides of the support column, making sure to cut out square holes for the light switches and outlets. I felt SO proud of myself for getting it correct on the first try! Jeremy installed each side like a pro as I moved on to measuring and cutting the next side, until the entire thing was closed in!

By the end of the day, we had successfully closed in the column and were feeling very proud of ourselves!

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Successful closing of the column!

The next day we tackled the slightly more complex job of the beams. In no time, the first beam was covered!

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Successful closing of the beam! Please ignore all the crap around the room.

We are waiting to finish the other beam because the electrician needs to come back tomorrow to fix a tiny problem with a dead light switch. In the meantime, we hired a handyman to compound all the seams closed and the next step (hopefully this weekend!) is to start painting the walls!

Disappearing kitchen magic trick

Want to learn a magic trick? We made our kitchen disappear in less than 60 minutes flat.

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Before: Our kitchen the day we bought the house

The trick is to post your kitchen on craigslist for $100 or best offer. Jeremy posted our kitchen on craigslist and by 10 AM the next morning we had several offers from folks interested in re-using our cabinets, granite countertop, and even our old, half-broken appliances!

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After: the blank space where our kitchen used to be

We ended up selling our kitchen to a real estate investor who flips apartments in DC and Baltimore. I couldn’t believe our luck…he paid us $200 to remove all the cabinets from the walls and haul away the appliances. He even helped move the broken oven to our back alley for the city to pick up later that week! He brought a friend and was in and out in less than an hour!

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Midway through the disappearing kitchen trick.

This may seem like a small feat, but Jeremy and I have devoted every free second of our lives to this renovation since we purchased the home in August. The amount of time we saved not having to remove the cabinets and appliances ourselves, not to mention the cost of paying for dumpster removal of all that debris was an incredible victory to us!

Open concept dreams coming true

When Jeremy and I first walked into this house, there was a LOT to take in–mostly the previous owner’s piles of possessions and garbage everywhere, with tons of walls cutting off the space into small rooms. But we also noticed the *potential* in this old, run-down house. So how do we get from this:

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to this?

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The answer is that we have to knock the walls down.

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This week, a construction company removed the load-bearing walls on the first floor of our home.  Now we have the fun task ahead of us of making it look like a million bucks. Our rough plan for the next two months is:

  • Figure out how to either restore or replace floors (it looks like we will sadly have to replace them because they are in really bad shape)
  • Rewire all electric that is currently dangling out of our ceiling
  • Install recessed lighting
  • Replace some old windows
  • Close in the beams and columns
  • Replace entire kitchen–many decisions and choices to make!
  • Paint

We have a lot of work ahead of us and tons of decisions to make on materials, styles, who to hire, etc. etc. but we are feeling good about the progress we’ve made. I can’t wait to see how it looks at the beginning of next year!

Refreshed from vacation and hyper-productive

It’s been one week since we returned from our fabulous vacation and SO much has happened in the house.

For the first time in a long time, I feel calm and in control of the next few weeks. We know exactly what we need to accomplish between now and December first. The list is long and highly aspirational but at least it lays out our plan.

Meanwhile, last week the DC government came to the house and inspected all the work we’ve done so far and gave us the green light to keep going with our MASTER PLAN! Next week a company is going to remove the load bearing wall that goes the length of our main level. We were told we could save $3-4K if we did all the demo work ourselves—by demo I mean removing all the plaster/lath/drywall on top of the studs in the wall. So dammit, remove it we did! Of course we had tons of incredible and much-needed help from friends (thanks to Julian and Matt for channeling your brute strength to smash through all the walls) and stripped all the walls bare in just two days! Unfortunately, demo produces a LOT of garbage. In just two days, we filled 3 Bagster dumpsters (with a combined capacity of 9,000 pounds)!

 

Our house came with a fake fireplace. We knew it was fake and assumed it was just a thin brick façade. Turns out it was actually a full-sized fireplace made out of genuine (heavy) brick—except it was not connected to the adjacent chimney and therefore completely inoperable. Jeremy destroyed it with a small jack hammer while Matt and I helped him carry them out of the house. Cute enough, a previous owner had installed a fake log with a built-in light bulb (for warmth?). All of this work has helped to expose several square feet of living space that had previously been occupied by a useless pile of bricks.

On Sunday, our friend Lauren came over and helped us think out plans for our kitchen remodel. Always invite your architect friends over on the days you are finalizing plans for a kitchen remodel. She also helped us yank all the nails out of the window and door trim that we want to re-use. After marking on the floor where we envision the new island, we took a field trip the greatest place in the world.

IKEA!

We are designing our kitchen using the frames of Ikea’s kitchen cabinets but covering them with the beautiful doors from SemiHandmadeDoors. Their doors are heavier, thicker, and more customizable than the options at Ikea, but still in the mid-level price range. And lucky for us, Ikea is having their annual kitchen sale in two weeks!

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Our rough plan for the new open kitchen

I love Ikea. It’s like a playground for adults—with meatballs!!