As I mentioned in this post, our living room was ready to finish once the plumber replaced an old pipe in the wall. So over MLK weekend, our dear friend Elizabeth came over and helped us close in the wall. This was my first foray into compounding which felt super intimidating for some reason.
Walls may just look like walls, but so much work goes into it. To make a wall look like one long, flat surface, you need to hide the seams between each sheet of drywall using tape and compound. But we didn’t want to pay a handyman to do this type of work so we did it ourselves!
Compound is essentially light weight cement powder that you mix with water and then slather onto the drywall. We used the type that dries in 20 minutes which allows you to apply all three layers of compound in just one day (rather than waiting 90 minutes or 24 hours for other types of compound to dry.
The first step in our journey to finish the wall was to screw drywall into the ceiling to cover the hole the plumber made.
Then we screwed strips of metal corner bead onto the outside corners, which protect the corner if anything bumps into it.
Then we got to work compounding over all the seams, screws, and corners. It was not hard at all!
We put tape on the seams by plopping a dollop of compound on the drywall and then gently pushing the drywall/putty knife down along
We bought a fun tool to help with the inside seams that worked like a dream! It’s hard to make these inside corners look like crisp 90-degree angles but with my new tool friend, it was super easy!
After two applications of compound, we sanded it down using sanding blocks (which covers everything in a fine compound dust). Then we painted. Then Jeremy cut and installed the baseboard trim and quarter round.
The whole project took about 2 full days to complete, and my god it almost looks like a normal house!!
For comparison sake, we would have paid our favorite team of 2 handymen around $1600 to complete this task. I’ll take free over $1600 any day of the week! #Winning.
Today I am very pleased to share our transformed bathroom!
Before we moved into the house, we knew we HAD to remodel the upstairs bathroom. It was old and gross and sad and no one wanted to take a shower in that tub (partially because it was covered in duct tape–which is a bad omen–and partially because it hadn’t been cleaned in several years). We had every intention of doing it all ourselves, but once we realized how long it would take for us to learn and do it all, the decision to hire a handyman seemed like the best option. This was back in October before we lived in the house so time was of the essence! Our handyman was able to do the bulk of the work over two weeks, while we worked on the rest of the house.
When we purchased the house, the bathroom had a tub, a toilet, and a small pedestal sink. We wanted to swap the location of the sink and the toilet to make more room for a larger vanity, while keeping the bathtub where it was. After reflecting on the cost of moving plumbing around, we decided not to change the location of any of the fixtures, which limited how much “design” went into this renovation. We literally ripped out everything and replaced all the fixtures and materials with new fresh updates. Since the house is so old, the bathroom is really tiny and leaves very little space for modern fixtures like elongated toilets or vanities with under-sink storage cabinets.
Bathtub: Eventually we plan to build a master bath in the back of the house, but for now this will be the only bathroom. And one day it will probably be used by dozens of dogs kids so we definitely needed to keep the tub. We were worried that the bathtub was smaller than the standard 30” x 60” size sold in stores. The nasty bathtub measured only 28” X 56.” It was very hard to find smaller bathtubs to fit that space. During demo, we happily discovered that our tub WAS a standard size after all! Over the years, previous owners had installed new tile on top of older tile, essentially squeezing in the three walls around the tub. Our handyman ‘excavated’ the three layers of tile to reveal a standard bathtub size, which made it SO EASY to find a replacement. Not so easy was hauling the old, original tub outside to the dumpster–it was cast iron and easily weighed over 300 pounds. Needless to say I did not participate in that activity.
We went with this tub that I refer to as “pregnant” because it has a curved edge to allow for more soaking room. We also installed a curved shower rod to make the shower feel larger, which is important since the attic stairs cut off some of the standing room.
Shower wall tiles: We installed these 12-inch white marble tiles with white grout. I love them! They make the bathroom feel very luxurious. At $20 per box, we spent $260 on the tiles.
12 x 12 marble wall tile by MSI (from Home Depot)
Sink: Similarly, most vanities with sinks were too wide and too deep to fit the small alcove with a human also occupying the same space. We wanted a 30-inch-wide vanity but then we’d have to cut off the window sill which seemed dumb. But a 24-inch-wide vanity would have left gaps on the side for your toothbrush to fall down, never to be seen again. These are things that most interior designers probably know, but I’m learning as I go. For weeks, I was building my dream board on pinterest and starting to seriously narrow down my options for a new vanity, only to learn the hard way that all of them were too large.
I ended up buying a vanity in both 24 inches and 30 inches, hoping our handyman could somehow ‘make it work.’ Only after both vanities arrived did we realize that no vanity with under-sink storage would EVER fit in that space due to how tiny it actually is. So back to the pedestal sink we went! We ended up installing this beauty to maximize counter space, with this faucet.
Floor tiles: We installed these 2-inch hexagon white marble tiles with gray grout. They bring me so much joy and I’m thrilled we installed them. (side note: our handyman did a very bad job installing them the first time around, so we asked him to re-do them. Luckily he didn’t make a fuss when we asked him to pull it up and do the whole thing over again–on his dime. In fact, we moved into the house with only half the floor covered in tile, the other half of the room was just a cement floor. Needless to say, contractor timelines are NEVER correct).
Toilet: Most people don’t have #toiletgoals but apparently I do. I wanted the smallest possible toilet, for under $300. When I discovered how cool-looking and space-saving floating toilets are, I was sure we would get one. But they cost a TON of money to install, so I’ll let that dream lie in wait for now. Due to space limitations, we ended up purchasing this round toilet which is slightly smaller. But at least it’s dual flush which is better for water usage. Since we removed several layers of wall behind the toilet, there is now a slightly larger gap than standard between the tank and the wall. What should I do with this newly reclaimed space? Just kidding.
Paint Colors: We needed to make a paint color decision super fast after we scheduled the handyman, so I did a quick google search and decided on Sleigh Bells by Benjamin Moore. I’m so glad we picked this color (sight unseen!)–it’s a baby soft light green-blue, and makes the bathroom feel like a cool oasis. It’s hard to photograph so just take my word for it–or come over for a visit! We installed the same 7.5-inch floorboard trim to match the rest of the house, and painted all the trim Super White by Benjamin Moore.
We plan to refinish all the doors in the springtime when the weather is warmer and we can strip the paint and re-stain them outside. For now that means we have to look at the nasty old paint job….sigh, no job is ever done!
Unfortunately the 10-day timeline turned into over two months, due to delays on getting the pedestal sink and asking our handyman to re-do the floor tile. Luckily they finished the work shortly after Christmas while we were on vacation so that only lasted a few days of us living there.
Regrets and lessons learned:
Since we selected the bathroom materials in a rush, there are some things I would change but not many. I would have selected a different lighting fixture that’s less massive and a bit more feminine. It’s too late to return it, so we are going to live with it for now.
We didn’t have time to buy any blinds or window covering before we moved in, but the window faces a VERY busy main road, so we definitely need something to provide privacy. We haven’t figured out what type of curtain or shade to get yet, so for now we taped up a $6 paper “curtain” from the hardware store.
And I’m only now starting to re-think the marble tile choice. Hear me out: they are GORGEOUS but everyone is warning me how difficult real marble is to upkeep over time (seriously, how did we not know this when we COVERED the future children’s bathroom in marble??!). So the real question is: should we install real marble tile or marble-look porcelain tile instead? The porcelain alternative is comically cheaper and much easier to upkeep over time–but it doesn’t give you the same *feeling* that natural stone does, and doesn’t add resale value to the home.
My heart and my head and my wallet all want different things. I mean, how can we have real marble in the kids/guest bathroom and porcelain in the master? What would you do? Does anyone have any POSITIVE experience with marble in their bathrooms? We need to cover the floor, the wall around the shower, and the shower floor in our master–should we do porcelain in some places and marble in others, or would that look insane? Help!
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:
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.
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’
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
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.
Our living room is SOOOOO close to being finished, which means we are DAYS away from putting furniture in the room and having a place to sit down!! I feel like a kid the night before Christmas…I’m so excited that I can almost feel those soft sofa cushions under my butt. You see, we have not had anywhere to sit since we purchased the house except for two hard kitchen chairs the previous owner left behind. When we moved in last month, we added three plastic folding chairs to sit at our island, but we still didn’t have anywhere to lounge or relax at the end of the day. We’ve been waiting to bring our living or dining room furniture into the house on a few outstanding, dust-producing tasks to get done.
But it’s a three-day weekend which means WE ARE GOING TO DO ALL THE THINGS!! Now that the plumber has replaced an old pipe we discovered in the front entryway wall and ceiling, we are going to close it up and paint it! Then we will install baseboard trim and re-finish the trim around our entryway door and two front windows.
Jeremy and I are already experts at installing baseboard trim because last weekend we installed a ton of it in our living and dining rooms. We only have a few pieces left to install after we finish the previously mentioned front wall.
How to Install Baseboard Trim
Difficulty level: Easy
Compared to some of the other tasks we’ve done, installing baseboard trim is pretty easy. We had to buy two power tools to get it done, but we think they’ll come in very handy when we tackle the basement renovation later this year.
Step 1: Measure wall
We bought extra long baseboards to ensure a single piece could reach from one side of the room to the other. We didn’t want any seams showing in the baseboard. I keep yelling “million dollar house!” and these details are how we’re gonna get there (I’m partially kidding). We measured each length of wall that would need a piece of baseboard and accounted for the 45-degree angle cut the saw would make. The goal was to make perfect, 90-degree corners at each inside or outside corner.
Step 2: Measure and cut the baseboard
We bought a 10-inch miter saw to cut wood at a 45-degree angle. Unfortunately the blade was not big enough to cut through our 7.5-inch tall baseboards…which we learned the hard way. The saw only cut through about 6 inches of the board and then we manually cut the rest with a tiny baby saw called a coping saw. I wouldn’t recommend this process but we didn’t have any alternative.
This step was confusing because we had measured the wall but didn’t know HOW to account for the 45-degree cut at the end. After a bunch of trial and error, we figured out where to cut the boards to create nice looking corners. Not all of our corners are perfect, but hopefully our friends and family won’t be crawling around looking for slight gaps at each corner. Plus, step # 4 mostly made up for this problem
Step 3: Nail the suckers in
We bought an AWESOME new, light-weight nail gun for this project, instead of renting an old, big, heavy one from the hardware store. It is so much easier to use and got the job done so fast. We nailed the baseboards into studs located behind the wall. We were lucky there were studs integrated into the plaster/brick walls, otherwise we’d have to use liquid nails which is a fancy word for super sticky glue, which is a lot more stressful to work with. We used our feet to push the baseboard close to the wall, then nailed those suckers in!
Step 4: Caulk the seams and edges
To hide any gaps, Jeremy used his trusty caulk gun to caulk the seams and edges along the top and corners of the baseboards. At each corner, he applied caulk BEFORE nailing it in place, to achieve a fully sealed-looking corner. For those corners that did not achieve a perfect 90-degree angle, I applied wood filler in the gaps to manually create the look of a sharp corner.
Step 5: Put wood filler in nail holes and any dings, then sand
To make the baseboards look flawless, I crawled around filling all the nail holes and dings with wood filler. Baseboards are not made from solid wood–they’re super light weight so they’re easy to handle but they ding at the slightest touch! The wood filler dries very quickly, then I sanded it flat to create a smooth surface
Step 6: Paint, then paint again!
We applied two coats of super white paint in semi-gloss. and BAM, we suddenly have a livable space.
We’ve been sanding the trim around our two windows, and Jeremy is cobbling together a new set of window trim for a window in the back of the house from scraps we saved during demo. I’ll post more on that once it’s done. For now, keep your fingers crossed for a productive weekend that will end in me sitting on a couch!
Our staircase has undergone a major makeover. When we bought the house, the stairs were looking a little droopy– it was pulling away from the wall at each step to reveal a half inch gap at each tread, plus some treads were loose. The post and banister were extremely wobbly to the touch and clearly could not support someone leaning on it. Further, the wood steps looked pretty rough, and the banister and post had been worn down almost to raw wood. To make matters worse, someone wrote on the gorgeous post in sharpie (why!?) and the sealant was all bubbly and discolored.
We knew we wanted the original stairs to be a beautiful statement piece immediately upon entering the home, so we got some quotes from floor refinishers on how much it would cost to fix her up. Let me tell you–it is NOT cheap. The estimates ranged from $3800 to pure insanity. These companies claim that it’s super expensive to refinish banisters and spindles, and recommended painting the whole thing white. We did NOT want to sacrifice the beautiful wooden details on our staircase, so we decided to tackle the project ourselves!
Task 1: Fix wobbly post and loose treads
Jeremy used a nail gun to literally nail the wobbly post back into a secure, immobile position. It was much easier than we expected. Our plan B that we didn’t resort to would have required us to install an L-bracket and cover it with baseboard molding like this:
He also nailed the lose treads down so they don’t wobble on each step anymore! With just several nails, he was able to stabilize the entire staircase and avoid many thousands of dollars of work that several contractors had quoted us! The lesson here is ALWAYS try a simple fix first, before shelling out the big bucks.
Task 2: Re-stain banister and posts
We decided to remove what remained of the original stain and start over, to ensure consistent color throughout the entire banister and 3 posts. First, we stripped the stain off using Citristrip (which is a horribly messy process). Then we conditioned the raw wood to prepare it to take on the new stain. Then we applied to new stain (in red mahogany) in two coats. Finally, I applied four coats of polyurethane to seal the whole thing up. At this point in October, we haven’t turned the heat on yet to avoid construction dust infiltrating our HVAC system, so it took a long time for each step to dry properly.
Task 3: Paint stringer and spindles
Unfortunately, it is simply too labor and time intensive to re-stain the spindles and wall stringer (a.k.a. the baseboard), so we have decided to go the route that many renovated row houses in DC do and paint them white. We will still have the beautiful wooden panel below the staircase in all it’s original stained-wood glory. These are the difficult trade-offs that we have to make since we are trying to do most of the work ourselves. We primed and painted the baseboard trim, wall stringer, and the spindles to match the rest of the trim in our house (Benjamin Moore Super White). We were careful to not paint the steps white, but didn’t worry TOO much since we knew they’d be sanded and refinished the next week.
I painted the small, triangle-shaped wall under the staircase after we moved into the house, and Olive thought she could help somehow.
Task 4: Refinish steps
After completing the above steps, we had the treads and risers professionally refinished to bring them back to their glory. We had them stained red mahogany to match the banister and post. We decided not to refinish the floors ourselves for various reasons, but I’ll always wonder if we could have done it ourselves with the same lovely result.
Task 5: Caulk the gap
We don’t know if we need to caulk the gap at each step anymore, as it is no longer such an eyesore. Perhaps we will wait til the spring to decide what to do.
For now, we LOVE our staircase. It was worth the work to refinish it ourselves, and will hopefully bring beauty to this house for another hundred years.
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.
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.
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.
Now it’s nicely painted and you’d never know all the work that went into it!
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!
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!