Still working on the walls


Well, skim coating the walls only made the bubbles beneath the wallpapers more obvious. So I sanded and applied more mud. Rinse, repeat. Also patched a few holes we put in when we were crowbarring the ceiling and spackled ONE THOUSAND nail holes. It took a couple weeks of working here and there, but the walls are smoothish. They’ve got “character” for sure, but I think they look pretty nice. I’m not bad with a trowel and I think I might actually be able to install drywall if I needed to.

They’re ready for primer and paint. Now that we have SO MUCH wall space and the room seems big, I was thinking about painting the walls a soft light gray instead of white. Just to add some dimension. A desaturated sage or dove kind of color. I liked these so I gave them a shot:


Naturally they don’t really look the same on the wall. The one on the top is too dark, but I like the one on the bottom. It looks like cloud vapor.


My only concern is the room looking too cold with the silver ceiling and white cabinets. But the counters are still wood, and I’d like to put in wood flooring too, so maybe it balances out. Maybe? What do you think?

Meanwhile. The plan for the kitchen ceiling is to cover the whole holey thing with plywood and nail up the (unpainted) tin ceiling tiles. Tin tiles were apparently created in America to mimic the look of fancy European plaster but they really took off in the late 1800s when lath and plaster ceilings began to decay in earnest. Makes perfect sense to me. Aaron is going to install the plywood for us, but he has a day job so it’ll get done when he can fit it in.

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But what about the walls?

Before we even start on the ceiling, there’s a lot to be done. Like the walls. I didn’t really think about the walls. On one side there’s painted chipboard paneling, 1960s style. Not entirely sure what’s underneath it, but I hope it’s not smashed up plaster. On the other side, we have three layers of wallpaper and at least two layers of paint, some of which only go partway up the wall.

wallpaper side

This picture is actually after I pulled the former crown molding off and took with it an entire layer of paper. Thank goodness for that mesh-backed paper from the 70s. This is what that paper looked like, btw (the paint just peeled right off of it):


Underneath that was this (covered in browning glue):


Under that, going all the way up to the old ceiling is this charming print:


Which has a brown colorway twin in our basement. I thought that would be all, but that paper was peeling a bit above the window and below it and another layer of paint, I found this:


Looks like a moorish mosaic pattern. In blues! Since I was descending well into lead paint territory, I opted to stop there.

As I mentioned, the wall by the laundry and bathroom was covered in paneling that Randall made quick work of removing. Underneath was drywall covered in a textured goldenrod paint, and the wall is in pretty decent condition. I was worried that they chose paneling to cover some massive holes, but I think they just liked the style. If I’m not mistaken, the paneling was originally Pepto Bismol pink. The newly naked wall has a spot full of tack-holes where a calendar used to be, and the silhouette of an awesome deco switch plate, but not the plate itself.

switch plate

I’ve got a lot of spackling and smoothing to do. The internet tells me that a skim coat of joint compound will probably work for this, but it’ll be my first time working with the stuff. First I need to sand away some of the lumps of wallpaper paste, but I’m not going near that goldenrod wall with the sander. I’m sure everyone’s favorite lead paint is waiting.


Safety first! If  the skim coat doesn’t go well we can always put drywall over it. In the meantime, lots of dust to clean up.

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Into the not-so-great unknown. Our attic.

With the drop-ceiling gone, we can finally get into the attic. Our handyfriend Aaron came over to install a drop-down attic ladder in the kitchen ceiling. Since the ladder is made to be mounted to the joists in the attic, the stability of the ceiling itself isn’t important, and that’s good because several spots look like this:

ceiling holes, explained.

There is no way we could have installed the ladder ourselves, if for no other reason than I lack the upper body strength, so having an Aaron is great. I recommend it. He taped off an area around where he was working, essentially making a small plastic room within the larger kitchen. It didn’t stop the RAIN OF FILTH that came down from somehow getting all around the house (thanks a lot, you dirty cats!), but that’s okay because now we can get in the attic.

We took a short look around. We could see disconnected gas pipes that I believe once lit the house, new wiring and knob-and-tube wiring, something terrifying in the corner (I’ll get back to that), and a thick layer of dirt on every horizontal surface. Have I mentioned the attic is filthy? 100 years of roof dirt waiting just for us! It was serious, so I got out our Dharma Initiative jumpsuits from a few halloweens ago.


That’s my serious face. We climbed the ladder with masks, a shop vac, a lantern and a trash bag and got to work. Taking care to only stand on the floor joists, we picked up large debris by hand and vacuumed the dirt. The debris was lath, plaster, old lumber, a petrified lemon, and a marble! That’s all we found in the cubic yard we were able to clear. Who knows what awaits us in the next 1000 square feet! That area alone took over an hour, and boy was it hot up there. Turns out that’s where all the heat goes! It’s California, nothing’s insulated here.

So the thing. In the corner. It looks like a big (beach ball-sized) lump of spray foam insulation stuck to an outside wall, but it’s not insulation. Nope, it’s organic. You can only really stand up in the center of the attic where the peak of the roof is, so to get over to the lump you have to crawl low along a joist. I creeped over to get a look and got to about five feet from it and turned back when I could confirm that it was not, in fact, man-made. I tried to get a photo of the thing but failed. Then I called Randall in and he smote the giant, papery abandoned wasp nest with a broom. It was abandoned! Hooray!


My hero! His backside. Forgive the photo quality, it was very dark.

After that we both decided we’d had enough and closed up the attic until we had a reason to be there. My apologies to our future electricians.

Next… back to the kitchen.


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G’bye kitchen ceiling!

This is what the kitchen ceiling used to look like. This was the day we decided to buy the house.


Since we don’t yet have the $ to replace our pipes, we opted to delay the bathroom remodel and instead we put our energies into demolishing the kitchen ceiling. Demolishing is (nearly) free! Yes, we’re tearing apart a perfectly good ceiling, but we have our reasons (Pro tip: It’s really ugly).

First thing we did was buy a reciprocating saw, a Ryobi that had a compatible battery pack with our drill. It didn’t work so well. It turns out that brute-force tools really need to be the plug-in variety. So we took it back and got a plug-in DeWalt (More expensive. Worth it.).

The ceiling is drywall attached to a very robust grid of beams. We started by sawing into the beams surrounding the useless attic access hole. Once the first section of beam was gone, we could start tearing away the drywall in chunks, moving across the room. randall with beams

There’s Randall working around the inset fixture. Look at all those beams! Solid wood. It’s a big room and removing the drywall took all day. We left the room taped off and the next day we took out the beams with a combination of sawing wood and crowbarring the many long nails. After confirming the electricity was off, we let the light fixture fall to the ground. It took a little more than a day for the beams, but we ended up with this (click for larger):

Look at that paint line. The old wallpaper. That poor window! And in the rubble we found this:


Construction dude of 1965: While you may have created an architectural abomination, you were still a worthy craftsman and I salute you.

The ceiling.

Up next: The attic.

Posted in DIY

That Dang Light

Hi Y’all! Long time. Guess what? I finally finished the bedroom light!

I had some setbacks, but it’s done, and I’m really happy with it. Remember back in March when I started all this? I spotted a type of light fixture on ebay I hadn’t seen before, but I wasn’t willing to spend what it sold for. So I hatched a plan and bought this chandelier to modify instead. As you can see it had hanging sockets, but not for long.

It arrived from the ebay seller as described: broken, discolored and as-is.

I began by taking everything apart that would come apart, and cutting away the old cloth-wrapped wiring. I got rid of the hanging sockets not intending to replace them.

Then I gave it a bath! It was… gross. I knew it had been repainted at least once so it couldn’t be a whole century’s worth of dirt, but it seemed like it.

I readied my supplies: plain old acrylic paint (metallics). I don’t know that this paint will last a hundred years, but I think it’ll survive on something that doesn’t get handled often.

I mixed a color I liked, a nice rosy gold and painted all visible parts with a brush. I didn’t want it to look like a flat spraypaint job, so when the gold was dry I went over it with a watered-down wash of black paint, wiping it away with a rag anywhere it was too obvious. This toned down the gold and gave it some patina and dimension.

This is how it looked:

It was okay, but in the months since I started this project, I had bought some gold leaf enamel that had worked well on the house numbers, so I decided to accent with it. It helped make it look more like metal and less like paint.

I also bought scraps of mica from another ebay seller who makes lampshades and proceeded to cut out the shade inserts. I bought silver mica, not the usual amber color. Turns out working with mica is pretty easy, at least for simple curves. It cuts with scissors and all you need to shape it is a heat gun, some tongs and patience.

To secure the mica panels in place I used a rubber compound called Sugru that Randall had given me. It sticks to what it’s molded to and cures in 24 hours. That’s what the black lumps are. It’s not the best looking adhesive but it was perfect for this.

Here’s how it looked all painted with the mica in place. It certainly is gold. Now I just needed to wire in some sockets.

MEANWHILE, we moved our giant bed and went up the ladder to see how the current light was rigged up. Bad news – it was affixed not only by screws but with paint and plaster. We would literally need to chisel it out, and we wouldn’t know how to rig the new canopy until we saw what was in the ceiling, with the power turned off all the while. So we moved the bed back and delayed. For months. Until finally one day I realized that our local hardware store sells all kinds of obscure chandelier parts, and I got my confidence back. Randall got the old light down with a chisel and hammer, and we went right back to the store to get the couplings and bolts we needed to hang it. We bought the canopy there too. It’s not a great style match, but it’ll do.

Finally, after heroically wrestling with bolts and wires for most of the afternoon, Randall succeeded in getting it operational.

When I got the silver mica I was a little disappointed that it just looked like parchment when held up to the light, but with a bulb it looks lovely and crystalline. It’s a nice soft light for the room with a great silhouette design. I’m really happy with it and stare at it a lot.

Posted in Before and after, DIY

Rehab: the chair

The neighbor across the street was moving and discarded this chair on the sidewalk. Solid wood utilitarian fabulousity from the earlier half of the 20th century. I thought it was vinyl at first, but it turned out to be leather beyond saving. It’s too bad, it was handsome.

This is not the first chair I’ve picked up off the street with intentions of reupholstering, but it’s the first one I’ve actually *done.* I went to Discount Fabrics for upholstery. Their stock constantly shifts and it’s pretty cheap, so I didn’t go in with any strong opinions and went with whatever caught my eye. I was thinking maybe something in a mod pattern or bright tweed, but the winner this visit happened to be magenta velvet. It was the best choice! How can you go wrong with magenta velvet? That’s right, you can’t! I also got some 8oz. batting to pad it out.

I began by prying off the leather with a flat-head screwdriver. It was very stabby. Lots of this action:

I have newfound respect for upholsterers. Many finger-stabs and skinned knuckles later, I had this and this:

I threw away the old batting and labeled all the pieces (Label first! You’ll forget later.) and noted their orientation in sharpie. Everything you need to know about reupholstering you can learn from taking the chair apart. Take photos if you need to. Make notes about the order in which you took parts off. I had bought upholstery tacks but there were so many on the previous job that I reused a lot of them.

The chair looked pretty good in just muslin, but it was half-naked. It’s a nice chair. It has tied springs and strapping under what you see above, and it’s still in good shape. I started out using the pattern pieces to cut new ones, but allowing enough edge to work with they were basically just large square shapes. So I just cut big pieces and fit them to the chair as I went. I did the same with the batting first, tacking it down at critical points and trimming away the excess. You want the batting to be able to move a little as you adjust and smooth the upholstery over it, so don’t go crazy on attaching it.

I squared the grain of the fabric with the frame of the chair, and started nailing the underside, six or eight evenly-spaced nails per edge. I did one whole edge of the seat first, starting in the center and smoothing between each nail to keep the fabric from puckering. Oh, and if you care about keeping the wood pristine, use a rubber mallet, not a regular hammer like I did.

Once one side is nailed in, turn the chair over and smooth the fabric in the direction of the opposite edge and do the same on that side. It involves a lot of tugging and nailing at the same time because you want the fabric to be taut, not baggy. Three hands would be useful at this point. I was folding the raw fabric edges under for neatness, but I think I’m going to just cover the underside with that black fabric the pros use and not worry about it. Fold the fabric into hospital corners at the corners of the cushion just like you would when making a bed, and nail those down too.

It’s pretty much done and Mooncookie is into it. It will look more finished if I ever get around to doing the edge piping. Maybe later. Magenta velvet chair!

Posted in Before and after, DIY

House genealogy (part 1)

I warn you this post is long, but to me it is fascinating. It started with the humble snippet above that came with our escrow paperwork. It was exciting to know that the house was THAT OLD, and that we knew the name of the (probably) original owner. Saloon?! Was our house a saloon? No, it was just the owner’s stated business. I started searching on and found enough information to get me hooked. Hooked enough to pay for an membership. There’s a lot of confusing information out there* but these are the things I know for sure:

1870: Frederick Brandt was working for his father, Conrad, a grocer at 417 3rd St, San Francisco (less than a block from where I work now). Seems like a successful working-class family.

1881: Frederick is listed as a grocer living (and working?) at the same address. Probably took over the family business.

1884: Alameda directory listings have no mention of Mr Brandt.

1886: Mr Brandt appears on the voter registration in Alameda, but no street address. There may not have been a house here at that point.

1887: Frederick Brandt now runs the Chicago Beer Hall with John Hencken. I’m guessing Hencken was an uncle or cousin – Brandt’s mother’s maiden name was Hencken. The bar is just down the street from the location of his father’s store.

1889: Check out the directory listing for his residence:

He was here on this spot, but this was before there was even an *address*!  Also for the locals, 9th Street used to be called McPherson. If you’re interested in what Alameda had going for it in 1889, check this out.

1894: Frederick Brandt is arrested for murder.


Continue reading

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Occupants of times past

I’m so excited! I’ve been researching the original owners of our house and I’ve just had a breakthrough. I think I know how the property first changed hands and who the proud owner of the 1930’s stove in the basement was! I’ve been working on a post about it and it’s not ready yet, but I had to share my glee. I started writing the post more than a month ago, but the more I look, the more I find and I’m not done yet. I don’t know why unraveling this mystery gives me such a thrill, but it does.

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A plan has been hatched

It’s not much yet, but I think we’ve settled on a general layout for the bathroom renovation. Is it a renovation when you totally change the layout? I don’t know. You know how it’s laid out now? Let me refresh your memory.

The purple areas are not bathroom space. Closet makes sense, storage makes sense, but the laundry room layout and walled-off closet are CUCKOO. So idea #1 is to remedy the awkward waste of space, idea #2 is to get me a bathtub I can use, and idea #3 is to have a bathroom free of leaks and 60 years of other people’s crud.

  • Big bath and shower area (separate units)
  • Door is moved over (no more 2-door airlock)
  • Stacked laundry closet behind the door
  • Build storage around the sink on the left
  • Another window! There was one in the laundry room
  • Toilet remains in the same place

We’ll lose some storage, it’s true. But we’ll add some on either side of the sink, and we have a lot to begin with. Yes it’s weird that our sole bathroom is right off the kitchen, and that’s why I think they had the 2-door entry, but it’s just a waste of space. And the toilet area is so secluded that it might be able to be made into a water closet.

Now that we have this very preliminary floor plan we can start talking to contractors and see how much this insanity is going to cost, and when we might be able to afford to do it.

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Lead paint: Delicious but deadly!

That’s my face after I realized what I got myself into.

You know how we had our house painted six months ago? Well we got the absolute cheapest painters ever, not realizing til afterwards that they didn’t prime the house (we really should have realized for that price). They power washed first and they did a couple of coats, but our little old house needed more. It’s not peeling everywhere, but where it is peeling, it started many layers ago. A little scrape on one of the blisters reveals this: Continue reading

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The house numbers are here!

And we got them finished and installed! Continue reading

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Screen Doors

Among the many other bees in my bonnet, I’ve gotten it in my head that we need a new screen door. I mean, we do. The current one is kind of awful and pulls the entryway right back to 1958. I’ve examined the catalogs of Vintage Woodworks and The Gingerbread Man many times, but there is no way, NO WAY we’re going to spend $500+ on a screen door. I admire hand craftsmanship and real materials, but I’m not a person who could justify that. Probably ever. So it finally occurred to me (today) that they must make retro-styled doors out of vinyl. They make corbels and gables and everything else out of it. Sure enough, they do and they’re a fraction of the price (Mass production! Yay?). These two are from Screen Tight.

Here is my question to you, gentle reader: Do you think I could get a door like this with screen all the way down and keep myself from accidentally kicking through it?

Or must I resign myself to a model more like this one:

which looks a little more awkward and is frillier than I’d like. Any other manufacturers or solutions I should know about? Please advise.

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Sink 911


It’s been pretty stressful around here for the last couple of months so Randall and I booked a vacation, the kind where you lay around by a pool and a nice man brings you drinks and you can read your book all day long. The day before we were to depart our bathtub and sink began to drain very slowly. Randall went to the P-trap to attempt to snake it and the pipe promptly broke off in his hand. Oh 60 year-old plumbing! You little scamp. The old drain broke off where it threads into the sink and there was no way to replace it, so the whole sink had to go. Twist my arm! I hate that sink. But first we had to go on vacation. Continue reading

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See you on the flip side, Saturn


My kitty passed away last week. We had 15 great years together and I’m grateful. It’s hit me harder than expected, but I hope to be back in the swing soon.

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Custom house numbers


Since before we painted the outside of the house I’ve been looking for some nice house numbers. There’s lots of great options if you’re looking for mid-century modern or arts and crafts, but Victorian? Not so much. I realize that address numbers were probably not fancy if you lived in a cottage in 1900, but this place needs some gussying up. And I believe the functional necessities in life can and should be beautiful. Not boring.

I was considering painting an address plaque but my brush skills are hit or miss. And then I remembered Ponoko. It’s a website where you can upload 2-D or 3-D designs and have them cut out of a variety of materials (wood, felt, metal, plastic, etc). I’ve been looking for an excuse to try out their service for a while and coming up with a design on the computer is more my speed. Continue reading

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