Using Skills and Energy

Money was limited, so Helen and I bought a "fixer" for our first house. It was located in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. Wallingford is on the near north side of town, and about a mile west of the University of Washington. Homes in that neighborhood consist largely of 1910 to 1925 wood frame houses, of what is termed the "Craftsman style". This means that houses were built by skilled carpenters and other craftsmen, without the use of architectural or engineering assistance. As a result, each house is a little different from the surrounding homes, since the tastes and skills of the individual craftsmen who were involved had a strong influence on what was built. Also, since the houses in Wallingford were built when both lumber and skilled labor were less expensive, features such as full dimension 2X4's, long board oak and fir floors, and leaded cut glass windows are found in many of the homes in the neighborhood. This is very different from the repetitive "cookie cutter" styles found in many modern subdivisions.

When we first saw our "fixer" house, a single mother who lacked money and maintenance skills owned it. The house was a two story structure with four bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a kitchen with an eating nook that looked out onto the back yard, a living room with a fireplace, a dining room with oak paneling and a plate rail, a partial basement, and a single car detached garage. However, the brick foundation under the front entry porch was starting to collapse. While the fir floors in the bedrooms were in good shape, the oak floors in the living and dining rooms were badly worn, and the linoleum floor in the kitchen had holes in it. The tiles in both bathrooms were starting to come loose. Many windows needed to be re-caulked. The bottom six inches of the wooden garage walls were rotten. The asphalt tile roof was old and the wooden gutters were rotten and needed to be replaced. And the kitchen? Well, as we like to tell our friends, the old porcelain sink in the kitchen was sagging so badly that a one inch gap had been opened next to the wall, and a 3" grapefruit tree was growing there from an old and errant grapefruit seed.

When you have barely enough money to make the down payment, getting a cheaper house makes sense, so that the monthly payments are lower. Also, buying a home with the potential for a substantial increase in value as it is restored also makes sense. I sort of knew that we would have to live in the midst of a long list of remodeling projects. Also, since money needed to be spent sparingly, my skills and energy would have to be relied on. I had some house maintenance skills, having learned from my Dad (sometimes in spite of my teenage protests) as we took care of the family house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But I had never remodeled a house, so there would be a lot of "learning by doing". Helen (ever the optimist) was confident that I knew what I was getting into. So we made an offer at 10% below the asking price, and it was accepted.

The restoration and remodeling work started before we moved in. The walls and ceilings needed to be painted in all the rooms, so we spread plastic on the floors of the empty house and went to work. Helen chose the colors, I hauled the buckets up the stairs, and we both worked with paint rollers, brushes and a stepladder until the entire interior had been repainted. Then it was time to deal with the worn oak floors. We did not want to move our furniture in, only to have to move it again to refinish the floors. Since we could not afford to have the floors done professionally, I went to the local tool rental store early on a Saturday morning, rented a drum-type floor sander, bought a supply of rough and fine sandpaper to go with it, and hauled it home.

The sander was a big, heavy thing which, when plugged in and turned on, tried to pull itself away from the operator. You constantly had to pull it towards yourself and keep it moving smoothly or it would dig itself into the floor. Where the floorboards were uneven, it would tilt from side to side, and the edge of the sandpaper would dig a little nick where it touched. I was ill prepared for the combination of physical demands involved in sanding an oak floor, of needing to pull the drum sander slowly and smoothly toward me as I walked backwards, and while also trying to stop it from tipping from side to side. Then turn the sander off, move the heavy thing back to the end of the room and a few boards over, and start all over again. And Helen kneeling down to rough sand the 3-5 inches next to the walls by hand, and repeating the process with fine sandpaper, because the drum sander could not be used so close to the walls. The whole floor sanding process took about 12 hours. I remember sweeping the floor clear of wood dust well after dark and then crawling over every square foot, wiping it down with a damp cloth so that the floor could dry overnight and be ready for finishing the next day. I also remember the little nicks left by the drum sander as it tipped from side to side, which only I could see, and which I regret to this day.

The next day involved another hand sanding of the floor with fine sandpaper to smooth any rough spots we had missed the night before, and the application of an epoxy-type "Swedish" finish. This means that a hardening catalyst is mixed with the finishing liquid, and the combination has to be brushed on without delay, so hardening occurs after the wooden floor boards have been adequately coated. Speed was particularly important for the first coat, to allow the liquid to fully soak into the pores of the wood before it hardened. So Helen poured the finish on the floor just ahead of me, and I brushed energetically. Together, we got the job done in about an hour. We then let the first coat dry for 24 hours, and hand sanded again to remove the raised wood fibers that are created during the drying of the first coat. We then applied the second coat, which required fewer gallons since the first coat had filled all of the wood pores. On Wednesday, 5 days after we started sanding, there was a shiny new floor in the living and dining rooms. To give the finish time to harden thoroughly, we waited until the next weekend to move our furniture in.

In settling into our "new" house, we took the upstairs front bedroom for ourselves, since it was the largest. The downstairs back bedroom became our family room. The two remaining bedrooms were reserved for future children and/or guests. We also began visiting secondhand stores and went to antique or estate auctions whenever we could, until the house was adequately and affordably furnished. Helen took some paint remover to the fireplace so see what was under the old white paint, and found handcrafted tiles with pictures of an idyllic countryside, which really changed the fireplace from ordinary to unique. I re-caulked windows, re-pointed the brick under the front porch, and dug the dirt away from the rotting garage walls. All in all, our house began to be a really nice home, except for the kitchen and bathrooms.

While we were fixing and furnishing, the kitchen stayed in the forefront of our minds as the big challenge. Helen had pulled the grapefruit tree out of the crack at the back of the sink, but the sagging front of the sink was a daily reminder. The money to have someone else remodel the kitchen for us, $10,000 or more, was not in the bank. Just buying new appliances would put a strain on our budget, so we had to remodel the kitchen ourselves. But how? I only had general handyman skills learned from my father. Neither of us had done something as complex as a kitchen. So I went to the public library, and took out books on remodeling and cabinet making. We also talked with friends to get their ideas, and to learn from their experiences. The best advice we received from both the books and our friends was to have an overall plan before doing anything. So I asked for help from a friend, Mike McNamara, who had been trained as an architect. For a nominal fee, he looked at our kitchen, talked with us, and then made pencil drawings for the remodeled kitchen. Those pencil drawings showed the location of appliances and provided dimensions for the cabinets and shelving in terms of height, width and depth. In essence, Mike drew the puzzle for us. It was our job to manufacture and assemble each of the pieces. And to accomplish a lot of demolition and reconstruction while also cooking and eating in the kitchen.

We started with the wall where the old freestanding stove was, and where the new built-in stove and refrigerator would be. It would be less demanding than the wall where the sink was, with all of its cabinets and plumbing. Having never built a wood cabinet, I started by purchasing a book on cabinet making at the local lumberyard. I also bought a table saw, which went down into the basement. From that point until nearly 3 years later, my spare time during evenings and weekends was spent in the basement, cutting the pieces for oak-faced plywood cabinets. It was interesting, because a lot of new skills had to be learned, and I could see progress being made a piece at a time. Cut the fir strips for the back of the shelving and the cabinet base. Then the plywood side panels and internal shelving, the fir facing at the front of the cabinet, the plywood bottoms and sides for each drawer, the oak drawer front, and the oak plywood and surround for each cabinet door. Mark each cut piece of wood with its name in pencil. Tie the pieces of each drawer, door or cabinet assembly together with twine, to keep things organized. Make periodic trips to the lumberyard to buy materials. Make one trip to the emergency room to have the fleshy tip of my right thumb sewed back on (never reach for a piece of wood that is close to the saw without turning it off!). Pre-assemble as much of the cabinetry, doors and drawers as could be done independent of the final assembly upstairs in the kitchen.

Finally, the day arrived. The old stove was moved aside, but kept plugged in so it could continue to be used. After careful measurements, the back plates of the shelves and cabinets were nailed to the wall studs and to the floor. Then the cabinets and shelves were placed in their final location, nailed to the back and floor plates, and tied together with the long piece of plywood counter top. Once the cabinets and shelves were all firmly attached to the walls and floor and the counter top was on, we painted the insides and the faces of the cabinets, glued plastic laminate on the counter top, and cut a hole where the stove would be installed. Then we stopped, and had the new refrigerator and stove delivered and installed. (Some things are best left for the experts. Besides, they took the old stove and refrigerator away with them!) Then we screwed on an oak facing to cover and protect the front edge of the plastic laminate on the counter top, and filled the screw holes with oak doweling. We also stained and varnished the counter top's oak facing, the drawer fronts and the cabinet doors. Then it was time to hang the cabinet doors on their hinges and slide the drawers into place. There it was! One kitchen wall was done.

Following the experience gained during our earlier work on the stove, the wall where the old sink was hanging was next. We had decided to delay the removal of the kitchen's most important work area until we were really ready to struggle through - wash dishes in the bathtub, etc. The process used was much the same as had been used for the stove. All of the parts for the cabinets, shelves and drawers were precut in the basement, and as much assembly as possible was also accomplished there. When the pieces to the puzzle had all been made ready, the old cabinets and sink were ripped out and dumped in the back yard. The cabinets above the counter top had to be installed first, so there was a lot of work done on a stepladder, installing carefully leveled back plates. Once the back plates were installed and the required vertical support was available, the new cabinets were hung on the back plates and firmly screwed into the wall studs. Then the back and floor plates for the lower cabinets were nailed in place , the cabinets were assembled, and the plywood counter top was used to tie everything together. Then a hole was cut for the new sink, and plastic laminate was glued in place. I installed the sink and plumbing, using those handyman skills that my Dad had taught me. Painting the inside of the cabinets, installing the protective oak facing on the counter top edge, and staining doors and drawer fronts followed. When the last cabinet door was hung and the last drawer slid into place, it was wonderful to stand back and look at what we had done.

The final step was a new floor. Once again, we decided to let experts do the work for us. Helen selected the pattern and color, and I wrote the check. It was truly nice to come home from work one day and see the new floor in place. That finished what was, for us, a successful and economical way to make our kitchen what we wanted it to be.

After that, we built a center island that provided extra storage, and which was topped with a butcher block. The center island was mounted on lockable wheels, so that it could be moved around when needed, or left locked in place at the center of the kitchen. We also stripped the paint off the seating benches in breakfast nook, built a new table for the nook that had a top made of short-board oak flooring (reusing the legs from the old table), and stained the benches and table to match the color of the kitchen cabinets. Helen found a lamp to hang in the nook, with colors that accented the plastic laminate counter tops. Somehow, along the way, Helen also found time to give birth to Lois Ann, our first daughter. (I gave her baths in the new kitchen sink!)

Cost to us? Pencil drawings/schematics for the new kitchen. One table saw, a hand-held jig saw, an 8-inch circular saw, one electric drill, and a paperback book on cabinet making. A new stove, refrigerator, and stainless steel sink. As much fir, oak and plywood as needed (the scraps made good fireplace kindling). Nails, screws, etc. Lots of dinners for our friends to show off our progress and get advice for the next step. Lots of our labor. Would I do it again? I did in our second house. But that is another story.

Article: 
Our First Remodel