Adventures in Renovation – The First Bite

It’s easy to get excited about home renovations. Even those of us resistant to change can’t help but get caught up in the quest for the calmest shade blue paint or the perfect pattern of floor tile. Since, as you know, i’m passionate about color and texture, i have boxes full of paint chips, counter top samples, and bits of flooring taking up an unseemly amount of space as i plunge headfirst into a gradual makeover of my little beach cottage in the wood. Even knowing what the eventual end will look like, there are still so many options to choose from. You make lists of the few jobs  that are too difficult or important-to-get-right for you to do yourself, and align them with lists of contractors and specialists. The rest will be a bunch of fun weekend projects. The excitement builds.

And then you start the work, and you remember why you don’t do it for a living.

I was starting with a simple thing this weekend – The inside of the kitchen cupboards. The cottage is 100 years old, with a kitchen that was added on around the time when the idea of a kitchen inside the house became more commonplace. The cabinets are good, solid, and heavy; so i decided to update them rather than replace them. The original state was old-wood wiff and that funky Crayola mahogany color that  hasn’t belonged in a  home since 1975. The hardware is fake copper colonial.

Not exactly Martha Stewart.

I wasn’t sure what the cabinets were stained with, and i couldn’t even begin to guess since i have no idea when they were put in, so i did some research online and with my local paint guru before deciding that i was going to have to start with  the basics and prime the hell out of them.

I thought priming would be step one. But it turned out to be step five, six, and seven.

I woke early Saturday full of the energy that comes with a new, desirable project. I go to my kitchen and start removing the contents of the cupboards. Easy enough, right? Ummmm…. Nope. First of all, it is my son’s task to put away the dishes after i wash them, and apparently he failed “stacking” in pre-school. There was literally nothing in the lower cupboards that i could move more than a single item at a time. Big squares on top of small circles, things upside down, and the plasticware…. Oy vey! None of it stacked with any sort of commonality, so i had to sort it as i was removing it just to keep it from heaping on the counter.

Oh, and the corporate people who think it’s a good idea to make each brand non-compatible with the others’ lids? You can kiss my ass.

Once all the “stuff” was out, i started on getting rid of the liners. One of the cabinets had contact paper so old, it flaked apart as i was removing it – which took a putty knife and more of a positive attitude than i actually possessed . The others all had leftover linoleum. It was a bit wiff from age, but not too nasty underneath…  til i got to the cupboard under the sink…

I think it was originally wood under there, but it looked more like a science project.

There wasn’t going to be any way to salvage it, so i had to pull it up. I was grateful to find that the subfloor underneath was neither rotted nor harboring creatures. I had some leftover plywood in the shed, so this should be an easy fix, right? But i don’t own a power saw of any kind, so i make a few calls to see if any of the hardware stores in town can cut out the pieces, including the allowances for the pipes. No such luck. Looks like another trip to the store for tools, but for now, i keep on.

I eventually get all the bottom cabinets unloaded and decide, just to keep myself interested, i will complete these before moving on to the upper ones. Having prepared the night before by purchasing tri-sodium phosphate, gloves, safety goggles, and a bucket (among other things), i set to work washing down all the inside surfaces of the cabinets to remove any grease or residue. A few things become apparent:

First, none of the inside surfaces are sealed. Second, these cabinets must have been hand-made because none of them is the same size, nor are the grain of the walls all going the same way. Third, whoever did the making didn’t know much about the physics of construction, because all the drawers are made with end-to-end corners, secured by penny nails. As a result, they are starting to come apart. Fourth, whatever the stain is made of, it makes a bigger mess than cheap lipstick. I have to make a new TSP solution for each cabinet because the water is nasty and orange by the time i finish with each one. Crimey.

Once everything is washed down well, i leave it to dry while i go buy the tools to fix the undersink. This required making friends with a somewhat questionable group of men at Harbor Freight, as i have never owned a jigsaw (Well, i have had quite a few jigsaw puzzles, but as it turns out, that has little relevance). They help me pick out something that is reasonably priced for the few times i will need it, and they were also smart enough to check that i had the proper safety equipment and medical insurance.

I head home and go to the shed to find that none of the wood pieces i have is suitable for what i need.  (Insert your favorite string of cusswords here)

By now it is past dinner time, and i am more frustrated than a gigolo at a convent, so i break for the night and make myself some of the best Irish-style vegetable soup i have ever made. Or maybe it was just great in comparison to the issues of the day. Whatever. It made me feel better.

Up this morning and off to get the wood. That part was actually pretty easy. It was early enough that i was the only one needing help and i was in and out faster than i expected, even including a detour to get Gorilla Glue for the drawers.

I admit, i cheated and had the guy at Lowes cut the boards to the right size. After all, my cheap little jigsaw would have had a much harder time of it, especially with me at the wheel. But i had to do the pipe cut-arounds myself. I used the old pieces as a template and then set to taking the jigsaw out of the box. Now, being female, i did actually look at the directions, but i admit, i mostly just read thru the safety points and glossed over the rest.  Had i been a little less assured that my common sense would get me thru, i would have read the entire thing, and my day might have gone better.

Just getting the blade into the blasted thing turned out to be a trial. The screws that hold it in place were in between sizes (At least for my screwdriver kit), so i couldn’t tighten them down as much as i should have.  I jerry-rigged supports and weights to hold it in place. The blade went thru about an eighth of an inch before it came out, stuck in the cut. As a testament to my lack of experience, i tried to pull the blade out of the wood by hand.

Five minute break while i wash the wounds and super glue them closed.

Unplug the saw, reset the blade. Saw another eighth of an inch. Swear as the blade falls out. This time i used pliers.

Repeat that about 100 times.

When i got to the point where i was cursing in languages that i didn’t realize i knew, i took a lunch break. I decided to read the manual while i ate. Then i cursed myself in all those languages again.

It was easy enough to find the custom hex wrench, since it was in a nice little strap made just for that purpose at the top end of the power cord. And now that i knew you were supposed to have it at full speed before  it touched the wood, i didn’t need 50 pounds of bricks holding it down before i started. Since i had cut and cursed my way thru 2 1/2 of the pipe holes,  it took me all of five minutes to finish the job with the properly tightened and wielded saw.

The prayer of gratitude that i made when the pieces actually fit like they were supposed to was both heartfelt and strong.

Next step: The actual priming. Stripped down to cutoffs and a sports bra (Getting paint off skin is a whole lot easier than getting it out of clothes), I start on the first cabinet. When i tell you that the wood sucked up the paint, i mean it sucked it up like a PMS Queen at a chocolate factory. There was no wet residue on the shelving before i even had my brush reloaded. But i kept at it until each surface had a good first coat. Then i had a cup of tea while it set.

The fact that it needed a second coat wasn’t a surprise. After all, it obviously hadn’t been sealed, there was a lot that came off when i washed it, and i knew i didn’t get it all. But after the second coat, when there was still stain seeping thru, i was getting more than irritated.

Coat three is almost dry, and there are still a  few spots where stain is seeping thru. I’ve used most of a gallon on 10 feet of cabinets, and that’s just doing the inside. In spite of this, and the cuts on my thumb, and the ache in my shoulders, and the consumption of a weekend for something that should have taken a day, i’m glad i did it. Even without a coat of the actual paint, it looks cleaner and brighter. The removal and replacement of the nasty wood makes me feel accomplished. I learned some things that will help when i do the outside of the cabinets (The inside of the upper ones might just stay as they are!) And now i have a chance to sort thru and organize all the mis-stacked pans, buy all new plasticware of a single brand, and make everything a bit more neat.

It might not exactly be a “win”, but it is a job completed. Yes, there are many more jobs to go, but like the man said when he was asked how he managed to eat an entire elephant, you just have to take it “One bite at a time.”



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