Sunday, November 15, 2009


Yep, that's me these days, not a fashionista (not that I ever was much of a fashionista)- a budgetista.
Coupon clipping is a regular Sunday morning activity. I don't buy anything without first checking online for a coupon. The library is my new best friend and I delete all store emails without opening them. I also bring my own lunch and as a result dropped about 10 pounds. Who knew?

But what's an addicted home improvement nut to do if on a budget? I was feeling frustrated without "a project" for a while. Maintenance,while necessary, does not always provide the same feeling of making an "improvement." Maintenance is more like, "we better do this or else something bad (or worse) will occur."

You know this. It's why most people would rather buy a new sofa than put on "a new roof". A new roof just isn't something most people get excited about spending money on. It's a necessity.

Having a flat roof here at the 2-flat, it's not even visible for us-unless we go up there to check on it, which we do every year for ongoing maintenance. While I like going up there for the view an satisfaction of seeing that our roof is in such good shape (for now anyway), I wanted something that I could perhaps see more often.

Which brings me to my current project. It started with something I look at every day, I'm loathe to admit- the television (note the station on is HGTV, so predictable).

With this photo, I am revealing our tube TV. Yes, some people still have those-especially those who spend all their money on a 100 year old building with a history of deferred maintenance.

The project is getting rid of the particle board TV stand and getting ready for that flat screen TV down the line.

Steve is planning to build a piece for this, but he's also planning to build 4 dining chairs, a sideboard, and 2 end tables for the living room among other things so I convinced him to go along with a "temporary" solution. It's like pulling teeth sometimes, seriously. But I love him anyway.

But how to find an inexpensive replacement that will inspire rather than merely take up space? In two words: estate sales.

We went to a few, and incidentally, one could write a blog about such experiences, because going to estate sales is very interesting and thought provoking. The last one we went to was billed as a "pre-foreclosure" sale. I was at a bungalow in the Old Irving neighborhood. The scene was a bit chaotic. There was no heat, no electricity (meaning no lights) and the place was pretty well gutted to the studs. We were told by a family member running the sale that we were "entering at our own risk" as we walked up the falling apart steps. There were pickers all over the place grabbing boxes and bringing them outside to look at them in the light.

I thought to myself, "this is going to be good."

It was a cold day and Steve and I made a mental note to always bring a flashlight along with a tape measure , which we had, to estate sales in the future. Incidentally, I carry a mini tape measure in my purse at all times. Old habits die hard.

In the midst of all the chaos, there were some quite interesting things. Old lighting, furniture, misc. unusual objects. It was really pretty interesting. The basement was filled with boxes, but without a flashlight, it was useless. The house itself was for a short sale and a sign said it was $150,000. Pretty good for a brick bungalow near the expressway on a quiet street. Not liveable, but already gutted!

Anyway back to my project. I spied this beat up deco piece and upon inspection  determined it was quite solid. The finsh was trashed. They said they wanted $50 for it. In cases like this, it is quite helpful to have someone like Steve around. Someone who tries to talk me out of almost everything I look to buy and often succeeds. I hedged, "I don't know, it's awfully beat up. I'm going to have to refinish it." They acquiesed, "For you, $35.00." And so it went into our SUV.

I thought I might have to paint it because the finish was really trashed. In the light, we determined it was either walnut veneer or cherry.
The next weekend, the weather was really nice and so I stripped it outside. I used a methyl chloride-based stripped, toxic but effective. Two applications and it looked like this.

There is one small veneer repair that is needed but I am fortunate to have the craftsman Steve available for that.

Here is the top. It's almost pristine. After Steve works his magic on the small veneer repair I wil shellac it and that's it! Bye bye particle board, hello beautiful deco piece. He promises me we can have it done by Christmas.

Yesterday, I applied some stain to a few areas that were lighter and did not match the rest of the piece.

All this for $35 plus the cost of stripper and about two days work.

Besides the deco design and solid wood construction (dove tail drawers etc...), the piece has another nice feature, the wood on the face is what you call "end or book match", that is, one piece of wood as cut in half for the veneer and then joined together at the center makinga mirror image. It's a pretty detail.

I feel like this piece is totally something that could have ended up homeless in an alley but instead it won the lottery and will get all the TLC it deserves and live in a warm & cozy home.

This makes me happy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

When good projects go bad

I've hesitated posting about this because it doesn't fit my image of us. We are seasoned DIYers after all, we know what we are doing and we are perfectionists (at least Steve is, it only takes one anyway). I've singlehandedly refinished over 1000 feet of oak and a dozen doors after all. Steve builds furniture by hand (the hard way/the craftsman way). We don't make mistakes. (cough cough)

But then I thought to myself, "Self, you haven't got that much going on with the house that you can post on the blog to be so choosey" and "Self, aren't you supposed to be all about keeping it real?? This isn't some HGTV show after all. I mean, really."

So I decided to share our recent disappointment with one of our previous projects. The thing with DIY is you don't want the work just to look good when you finish it, you want it to last a really really long time so you don't have to do it again for God's sake.

Sometimes, it doesn't work out that way. And yes, this even happens to people like me Steve who do their homework and have been doing DIY for almost a decade. It happens because....(hear this all ye disgruntled contractors!!)--we are not professionals. And actually, now that I think about it- things can go wrong for professionals too. So there.

So now you want the dirt right? Everyone always does.
It was late in the season, November 2007 to be exact and we were worried our dilapidated garage door would not make it another winter and would splinter and crack into pieces leaving a garage without a door, which would be certain disaster (relatively speaking of course).

We would have started sooner, but we got behind and didn't find a a replacement door  until mid-October...

From that point, it was a race to finish the door before it got too cold. The door was painted and needed to be stripped. That was my job.

I did my usual heat gun and strypeeze combo outside in the backyard and all seemed well until I put the first coat of primer and some red dye seemed to be bleeding through. Uh oh.

As it was now November and getting colder fast, we perservered and continued painting. Steve replaced the glass panes, fabricated muntins for the missing pieces, and concentrated on framing the door.

It was one of those times I felt bad for Steve because he was working outside in not very nice weather (see photo) and there was no turning back. Kind of like when you go on a hike and the weather turns bad, really bad. You have to hike back, no option. That's the kind of project replacing an outside door is. You can't just leave it till next year when the weather is better etc... From this and other such experiences, I don't recommend starting a project like this so late in the season. Live and learn.

Anyway, Steve managed to get the new framing and trim in though I recall some choice words uttered and real frustration with the fit. He wasn't 100% happy with the finish carpentry.

I remember he said (almost as a warning to the errant trim), "I'll be redoing this in the Spring!" And I was like, "Oh, great. Can't wait." I didn't say that out loud mind you, just thought to myself. I'm not that dumb. Rather, I behaved more along the lines of, "I'll make dinner tonght okay?" and "I'll do the grocery shopping and bake some cookies for you okay, honey?" And Steve said in reply, "grrrr. okay."

Painfully, he managed to get the door finished before Christmas. And after that punishing end to the season, we took a much deserved break.

Happy ending right? Not exactly. This is a good project gone bad so it doesn't have a happy ending.

Remember that red stain bleeding through the white primer? Well that seemed to effect the bonding of the paint to the wood. It was either that or the cold temperatures that caused the paint to fail in several places.
So, for the past two years, I have scraped, caulked and painted that door . Steve hasn't redone the trim yet either. We've had other fish to fry and there's still some healing to do before we revisit this project.

I never posted about this because it was so annoying and I couldn't stand to write about it, but now after a few years have gone by, I have enough detatchment it's okay now. These things happen when you are a DIYer and in life. Things don't always go as planned. It's another important lesson and another life lesson that we have fully actualized through our DIY activities. Life as a house. It really fits sometimes.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Battening Down the Hatches

It's that time of year. Time to prepare for another long Chicago winter. What does this mean at Chicago 2-flat? Well, it means painting exposed wood, re-glazing some old windows, patching our hot tar garage roof, touching up our building's rubber roof with a reflective aluminum coating, securing and caulking the clay coping tiles on the parapet (finally!!),  and some minor concrete repairs.

It's all about keeping water- that natural nemesis of homes -out! And also keeping heat in and the cold -- out!


The basement front window glazing was really tired so we re-glazed and then painted the windows white to match the other windows on the building.

Eventually we are going to replace these windows, but for now it's periodic maintenance. Glazing secures the panes in place within the window muntins and makes the windows more airtight, therefore helping with conserving energy and keeping the warm air inside during the winter.

Obviously, painting wood prevents it from rotting prematurely too.


The garage door paint was failing in some places unforunately. We think perhaps the temperature was too cold when we originally painted it or there was some residue that was not stripped totally when we stripped it. Not fun, but these things happen sometimes!

Here I'm caulking cracks with painters caulk. Two coats of paint and a brass kick plate and hopefully the door will hold for a few more years until Steve builds us a new one.


Steve placing the backer rod prior to caulking all the coping tiles around the parapet. This was supposed to be done three years ago but we ran out of time before winter...three years in a row!

Honestly I can't believe we went that long with unsecured coping tiles.

Steve applied Vulkem 116 roofing caulk. We counted ourselves lucky that the $100 worth of caulk we bought a few years ago was still usable.

A few of the tubes were too stiff to use, but the rest were okay. Funny thing is, I remember balking back when we bought it. "Are you sure we need that right now?" 3 years later and we finally used it. A cause celebre.

And here you can see a full view of the roof and the scope of the job. I also spray painted the roof vents while we were up there.

After powering through a number of these tasks last weekend and feeling that "kicking ass and taking names" feeling, I was joking with Steve. I said we should change our house slogan to, "We do more in one weekend than some people do in a whole year."

Of course, after a 2nd weekend of work, we're a little more reserved now. But almost finished for the season!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Field Trip: Rich's Foxwillow Pines

We are BIG pine tree fans here at the 2-flat. Actually to give credit where its due, I'll admit that Steve is the one who has given me the appreciation I have for evergreens. Take a walk with him sometime around a neighborhood in Chicago and listen. Chances are you will hear him say gazing upon some new condo conversion, "They should have planted some pine trees."

Being a native of Michigan, the source of the many a Christmas tree in these parts, it's no big surprise that Steve is loyal to this noble tree. He also spent some of his childhood living on a lake and has a love of being near water. That's why we live 2 blocks from Lake Michigan and why Steve never ever wants to move. In my weaker moments, I would consider moving west to get away from some of the urban headaches, but Steve would never go for it. I love him for that.

Steve is our tree keeper, while I tend the perennials. It's a system that works for us. For several years, he has wanted to visit Rich's Foxwillow Pines in Woodstock- THE place for pine trees. They specialize in specimen trees and smaller sized trees ideal for city lots.

Here's Steve pensively studying the price guide at Rich's under the share of a massive willow tree.

I'm happy to say that things have died down enough with our house projects that we can start doing those things that we have been wanting to do for while. Call it a bucket list if you like- as far as life goes, after 40, one starts to want to "make it count." That's kind of where we are at right now. Some of these things are small, like "visit the new Modern Wing," some are bigger like, "visit the Canadian Rockies."

As I mentioned, Rich's specializes in dwarf trees suitable for smaller spaces. He even has a whole collection of teeny tiny tees. Those of you with only a balcony could make an AMAZING miniature "forest" in a large pot!

The place kind of rambles around and goes on and on seemingly endlessly. At the spot pictured at left, I came across a painted turtle and heard frogs grunting.

And there were robins absolutely everywhere.

If pine trees aren't your thing (God forbid!), he has 500 varieties of hostas also. And he has 35 acres down the road, which he uses to maintain his inventory levels. We met Rich while we were there and he was kind enough to drive us around in his cart and show us a few things. He's an affable fellow and it's always great to meet someone who has found their passion and loves what they do.

We were looking for ideas for adding some more trees to the backyard and we found some. Now we just need the m-o-n-e-y, which we will be able to budget for next year.

So, why do we love pine trees so? Quite simply, they are evergreen and provide year round color, which is sorely needed in a long Chicago winter.

Besides that, they provide a needed structure in the garden, sanctuary for birds, they smell nice and there are so very many varieties, shapes and sizes.

So, that in a nutshell covers our visit to Rich's Foxwillow Pines.

Monday, August 31, 2009

If there's one thing you can count on in life...

It's that things are constantly changing. I just realized it's been 4 months since my last post. The time just kind of slipped by me. We are not doing any "major projects" here at the 2-flat and so I seem to have turned my focus elsewhere.

Steve & I went to Canada in August and had an amazing trip. As we were climbling mountains in Kananaksis Country ("K-Country"), I found myself thinking how renovation helped prepare me for the experience of climbing mountains.

Both involve endurance and delayed gratification. You work weekend after weekend on your house all for a long term goal. With hiking, you climb and push yourself to get to the top of a mountain, pass or ridge to gain the expansive view from the top.

Both are rewarding and provide a real feeling of accomplishment that money cannot buy. You did it. Yourself. You know you can do more than you think you can.

These are the gifts of DIY and the gifts of a good hiking trip. Endurance, self-reliance and joy at accomplishment.
Now, on to the more mundane tasks like weather proofing this house for winter.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Kitchen Table Progress

I think I may have mentioned before that finishing a piece of furniture can take as long or longer than the building it. Wood is a natural material and it can be tricky and even unpredictable.
Steve did quite a bit of research as he has never worked with bird's eye maple. He did do one shelving piece in maple and that was trickier to finish than white oak, which is what he usually works with.
Of course he consulted the internet and his favorite publication: Fine Woodworking (that's besides his other fav publication Fine Homebuilding). He even emailed the author of "Three Finishes for Bird's Eye Maple", Teri Masaschi to ask a few questions. And she very kindly emailed back!

Steve has been working on finishing the bird's eye maple table top for a few weeks now.
For anyone who is a newbie at woodworking, you don't just go and slap some stain on wood after you are done sanding. That would not be wise because as I said, the wood can be unpredictable.
Steve always makes some test pieces to determine how the wood takes the dye, stain or shellac, etc... Here you can see the variations he came up with with different layers of dye.
We selected the top center board color as it is lighter than all the oak in our kitchen and we feel it will offer a nice contrast and show off the figuring very well. What do you think?

One thing that came up with this particular project is that some of the "bird's eyes" popped out. They were filled with a fill stick as you can see here.
Steve decided to use a combination of gel and shellac for the finish. A few kinds of shellac that I will post about later as I don't have the details right now. He is in process of applying several coats of shellac and just last night after putting on another coat, he discovered some "ghosting."

No, our table top is not haunted. It just has some white film on a section of it. Not the look we were going for. There are many reasons this could happen. Possibly there is too much humidity in our basement and higher water content in the shellac then caused this. Possibly slight residue of sanding was left and became embedded in a layer of shellac. You see what I mean about tricky

So now, we have the dehumidifier going and Steve is contemplating sanding off some layers and beginning again with the shellac. It's tricky. More to come.

But as you can see here, this wood is so pretty, it's work all the effort. Finishing is really the hardest part to woodworking!

Friday, April 03, 2009

Just saying Hi

I just realized that I went the entire month of March without posting.

True we haven't been doing much, but a month? That's just not acceptable.

Steve has been working on the table top. He just this week started applying the layers of finish. He has been doing extensive research as he has never worked with Maple before.

I have to admit that right now I just don't have the oompf to write up the minutae of dyes and shellac colorations and how those combinations interact etc... etc...

Instead, I'm just posting this pretty picture of daffodils and saying Happy Spring!

Right now, we are in the process of looking for tenants also. Our adorable twenty-something roommates had to split. I believe we will be wrapping that process up this weekend. It is always good to have that behind us. Miss you guys.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Little Projects

That's what we'll be doing this year or rather that is what we have planned right now. This doesn't make more exciting blogging, but it will have to suffice for 2009.

Of course, we made a list, a rather long list of everything we'd like to do and then we prioritized based on stuctural issues and cost. As it turns out, we have a number of things we can do that will cost next to nothing. Projects that have been cued up for a while and just pushed aside.

We have a stockpile of some materials in our basement also (read: oak, more oak, and some more oak)and it will be nice to clear some of that out! Steve is still working on our kitchen table at the wood shop. He is hand scraping it, which is the method used before sandpaper was invented. The effect is more burnishing and smoothing as opposed to sandpaper, which leaves fine scratches on the surface.

He's kind of a luddite when it comes to making furniture, but he does make "hand-crafted" furniture. This is why it takes a while too.

As an example of the kind of projects we are undertaking, our latest project was to install a Hunter ceiling fan we purchased in 2006, back when we were remodeling the 2nd floor.

The funny thing about this little "freebie" project is that it ended up costing us close to $100.00 after we retrofitted the ceiling outlet with hardware to hold up this monster ceiling fan. The house gets the last laugh this time, but just wait, the year has just started.

Projects on the boards for this year include:

Building out our mudroom/entry area with a mirror and hooks for coats etc...

Tuckpointing the garage and basement walls.

General maintenance of roof, concrete repair, window glazing etc...

Install missing shoe moulding in Living room, dining room and mud room.

And no summer would be complete without me refinishing at least one door so...we will be buying a salvage door for our den (Steve's office) and I will refinish and then install it.

There's a bunch more little and not-so-glamourous-or exciting small projects that I won't bore you with here. I'll try to post when something exciting happens.