Category Archives: House

Refinishing the Stairs–Before

Carpeted staircase

Carpeting covered the entire stairwell.

After ten years of indoor and outdoor projects, we were left with one last effort that wouldn’t require removing sections of the roof or overhauling basement drainage: refinishing our upper staircase.

The stairs were covered in the same bad carpeting as the downstairs bedrooms when we moved. Unlike with the bedrooms, where we removed carpet and underlying linoleum to reveal the original fir floors, we left the stairs untouched while we worked on the rest of the house. The carpet wasn’t pretty, but it was inoffensive, protected the stairs, and provided sure footing for pets and toddlers. With the summer in full swing and all my contractual obligations fulfilled, it was time to confront the stairs.

I began by thoroughly vacuuming to minimize spreading dust when pulling up the carpet. Then it was simply a matter of finding an edge and bringing a pair of needle nose pliers to bear. The carpeting came up easily, and for the first time in the history of our pulling up floor coverings in the house, it revealed no ugly surprises–no glued down linoleum, no layers of newsprint, no strips of tacked down salvaged tin strips, not even padding or tack strips.

Instead we found worn but serviceable old growth treads and risers with a failing finish, an ideal candidate for refinishing.

Carpet removed from the staircase

The carpet comes up, revealing no ugly surprises.

Glass Tile Backsplash–Installation

the backsplash ready for grout

The tile installed and ready for grout.


Having tiled with ceramic tiles, I expected using glass to be very similar. That expectation was met. The reading I did beforehand (This Old House and DIY network were especially useful) suggested special care to avoid scratching the tile’s show surface and to accommodate glass’s translucent characteristic. In practice, I found the glass tile not especially prone to scratching, and the opaque color applied to the back meant my thin set lines didn’t telegraph through the tile, so quickly gave up on knocking them down. The one place I did take special care throughout the project was when cutting tiles–they seemed more prone to chip out than ceramic tiles, so when making cuts, I would cut in from one edge slightly then flip the piece over and finish the cut.

Layout is perhaps the most important aspect of a tiling project, and the kitchen set up made that task easy for this project. I worked in from each exposed edge toward either a corner or bank of cabinets and was able to run 7 full courses of tiles up the wall. The irregular vertical positioning of outlets made for some awkward cuts, but we were still able to install the entire backsplash, grout, and caulk over four days.

Tools and Materials

Glass Tile Backsplash–Before

The kitchen before a new glass tile backsplash.

The renovated kitchen in my sister-in-law’s kitchen included a wall paper treatment featuring marbled burgundy and floral border. Image via Zillow.

Over the holidays, my wife and I installed a glass tile backsplash in my sister-in-law’s new house, replacing the wallpaper installed by a previous owner as part of the kitchen renovation. Although labor intensive, it’s not too technically challenging a project. It helped that they’d stripped the wallpaper and scuff sanded the sheetrock beneath to provide tooth for the thin-set we used to adhere the tile.

The backsplash prepped for tile

Once the wallpaper was stripped and the sheetrock scuff sanded, the backsplash was ready for tiling.

Milling a Windowsill

A window sill

The bottom of the original sill. The tightly-spaced growth rings are a sight to behold.

My neighbor presented me with an interesting challenge: mill a new windowsill for a garage window. He was replacing the old window and needed to replace the rotted sill. The original featured beveled edges to account for the angle of the sill and two grooves its bottom. The shallow groove provides a drip edge to keep water from running under the sill. The deeper groove accommodates the edge of the siding.

Milling the new sill was straightforward. Using the original sill as a reference, I set the table saw blade to the bevel angle and ripped the bevel. The complimentary angle on the opposite side was achieved by flipping the board and running it down the other side of the blade. After planing my saw cuts to produce a finished edge, I used a router to plow both grooves, taking multiple passes with a 1/4″ straight bit to produce the correct width and depth for the grooves.

The new sill, featuring much wider growth rings.

The new sill, featuring much wider growth rings.

Mid-Century Production Design

Mid-Century living room

The Masters home from Masters Of Sex (Photo: Michael Wylie)

The AV Club recently featured an article on what it’s like to be a production designer. The interview subject, Michael Wylie, designed the sets for Masters of Sex. There’s not much on Mid-Century, but it was interesting to read about how Wylie used production design to help establish the personalities of Ben Masters and Virginia Johnson. In Johnsons’ case, the austere Mid-Century decor reflects a repressed personality.

Shaker Peg Board

shaker peg board.

A three-inch strip of lightly-chamfered and painted poplar serves as the base of the peg board.

I’ve wanted some method for storing yard implements for some time, but I wanted something with more appeal than the utilitarian plastic and metal options available. I finally decided that Shaker peg board would make a nice alternative. I ordered some maple pegs online, but only afterward did it occur to me that even my best free-hand drilling attempts were likely to leave the pegs at least slightly off-center and a bit splayed. So I deferred and other projects intervened until I had access to a drill press and was ready to build. Consulting Thomas Moser’s How to Build Shaker Furniture and John Shea’s Making Authentic Shaker Furniture, I decided on a three-inch wide board with the pegs set 6″ on center.

Actual construction went quickly. After ripping some poplar to width, I planed away the machine marks on the show side of the board, ran a chamfer around its perimeter and hit it with a quick pass of 220 grit sandpaper before priming and painting. I then marked the location of the pegs using dividers and a square, then drilled them out with a 1/2″ Forstner bit. I had contemplated different fastening techniques, ranging from a French cleat, to plugged screw holes, when it occurred to me that  each peg was an effective plug. So I drilled pilot holes in every few peg holes, positioned the board on the wall, and marked the concrete wall. Even with a hammer drill, it took some time to drill holes for masonry anchors. With the anchors finally set, I screwed the board to the wall and tapped the pegs into place with a wooden mallet.

Original Exterior Finish Revealed

stained shingle

Flaking paint revealed the original finish coat for exterior shingles–it looks to be a green stain.

I took advantage of some unseasonably warm (and dry) weather to touch up some exterior paint. As part of my prep, I scraped patches of loose paint, revealing what looks to be the original finish–a green stain. So it looks like the clapboard was painted green and the shingles stained. Not an unusual approach for the period.

A PoMoFo Craftsman House

Last spring a vacant lot, still populated with old growth trees, went up for sale (it was part of a double lot the owner decided to parcel out). The real estate agent’s sign came and went without any indication of an actual sale, but late in the summer excavators appeared and cleared the lot and dug foundations. As did many local residents, we enjoyed watching construction, but I was disappointed to see some missed opportunities, like the decision to put the house on footings instead of doing a full basement, or an unnecessarily baroque roof design. I am a bit perplexed, too, by the design of the house. It exhibits bits and pieces of Craftsman design–gables make an appearance, and there are shingles over siding, for example–but it’s as if the architect (if there was a human agent behind the design and it wasn’t generated by algorithm) took a couple of different representative Arts & Crafts designs, tossed them in a blender, then picked bits and pieces at random and called it a day. At the risk of some silliness, I’m proposing “PoMoFo” as a new label, a condensation of Post-Modern Faux, to describe the style. Especially sad is the porch, a miniscule facsimile hampered by its lack of useful size. Should we be glad that at least some effort was made to blend the nascent McMansion into the neighborhood by incorporating historical elements into the design, or this the final gasp of what passes for contemporary home design?

At least the garage is at the back of the house.

The power of paint


Electric salmon was a little too shocking for our taste, so we primed, primed again, and painted.

Like taste (famously described by Proust), photographs bring with them their chains of association. Even after years, seeing photos of the house before we repainted still elicits a little cry of shocked disgust and reminds me the listing for the house touted “designer colors.” Taste is, of course, personal, but I can’t imagine hot salmon a soothing color for a bedroom. Or what designer might actually choose it. The color featured prominently in the house when we moved in, and we spent several weeks eradicating it. A couple of coats of primer and a couple of coats of paint later, and we had the relaxing blue we desired in a bedroom even if the electric salmon still haunts our memories. Color, and consequently paint, has a power. It can inspire, calm, excite, depress, or chosen especially badly, terrify. Use it wisely.

Blue, Yellow, Brown: A Little Touch Up Painting

Stripping paint.

Scraping and sanding reveals previous coats of paint and the milling marks on cedar siding.

I spent much of the holiday weekend scraping, sanding, and painting the clapboards on the south side of the  house and had plenty of time to contemplate life’s profundities, questions like “At what point does “shuffle” become indistinguishable from “repeat” on even a long playlist?” and “Who spackles square feet of exterior surfaces?” Most on my mind, though, was this: is there any home improvement task less rewarding than freshening paint? Do the crews painting the Golden Gate feel satisfaction when they finish a coat, or just despair when they have to begin again immediately? Certainly there are worse jobs–anything involving waste lines, for example. But done well, the prep, priming, and painting produce an effect almost indistinguishable from the point where you began. There’s no peeling or fading, but there isn’t the drama of a new color. Continue reading