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Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a Carpenter…

I’m a versatile kind of guy. When I’m presented with mystifying information, I try my best to look at it from all angles. Study possible permutations. Seek alternate explanations. So after long and careful cogitation and rumination, mixed with a copious number of naps, I’ve come to the conclusion that my wife takes perfectly good pictures with her cellphone. It must be me that’s out of focus.

It pains me to think on it, but I’ve passed on some sort of blurry gene to my sons as well. They appear to be out of focus all the time, too. There’s also some sort of dark aura or emanation all around us, causing pictures of us to look underwater. Of course, we’re only underwater financially, but something is causing it. It must be me.

So here we are installing several of the very few closed cabinets in this kitchen. This set is going over the stove, which is under that fuzzy moving blanket. If you ever have to install cabinets like this, it’s smart to attach as many of them together as you can lift, and install them as a unit. They go together hard one at a time on the wall. I’m removing the cleat we used to support the cabs while we attached them to the studs in the wall. The backsplash will eventually cover the leftover screw holes, so we don’t worry about makin ’em.

I like open shelving in the kitchen. I don’t like it around the stove. Even when there’s a range hood (coming soon), cooking fumes makes stuff greasy right around the stove. Spices and such come in so many package configurations and sizes that they display poorly out in the open. And directly over the stove cabinets don’t usually get daily use. That’s a recipe for greasiness if they’re not enclosed.

Since I’ve already maligned so many kitchen designs, I might as well keep going, and tell you I hate overlay kitchen doors. I only use inset doors when I build cabinets. They’re fussy to fit, so they’re not as popular as they used to be. I like the way they look, and the gratifying thunk they make when the magnetic catch hits home.

There she be. My poor, long-suffering wife finally has a hood with a light over her stove. It was the cheapest thing at the home store, but she still hugged the box when I brought it home. Little things like that are important in a kitchen. Good light, sharp knives, unlocked booze cabinets nearby; that sort of thing.

Working late here, I gather. Either that, or it’s finally winter, when the sun comes up just over the horizon, looks ashamed of itself, and then sets behind the mountains about four hours later. These cabinets were exactly to my wife’s specifications. Open shelves for big bowls and things on the left, All the pots and pans in deep drawers on the right. They’re just plopped there, waiting to be attached to each other, shimmed to the floor, and screwed to the wall. The inspector is hard at work, as usual.

Speaking of things made to order, Mrs. Cottage was tired of a trash barrel running around loose in the kitchen. I went out on the intertunnel and priced pull out trash cabinet hardware. Apparently, everyone but me is an Arab sheik with an oil well out back. I couldn’t believe how much they cost. Let’s make one.

We had a cabinet shell that wasn’t good for anything else, so we used that. I had some very heavy-duty drawer slides. We bought two plastic buckets for cheap. The pullout part is just a tray with two rounded rectangles cut out of its top. It’s all made with scrap 3/4″ birch plywood, which was already prefinished.

The front is just a simulacrum of a cabinet, with a honking big handle to make opening and closing it easy. Trash in the front, recycling in the rear, just like the town dump. We’ll put a proper piece of countertop on it later. Having a counter on both sides of the stove is nearly mandatory in kitchen design, if you ask me.

The other cabinets are affixed to the wall and floor now. We plopped a length of demolished countertop on them to keep the kitchen humming. We’ll find a use for it somewhere when we install the real countertops.

Of course, like everything else in the house, the wall wasn’t plumb, or flat, or at right angles to anything else, so i shimmed it and skinned it over with drywall to get ready for finishes. Purple drywall is for damp locations, of course. That location ain’t damp, but the purple color is nice, ain’t it, and we already had the piece in the house.

So I guess it must have been the fall, because my regular helper is nowhere to be found in the pictures. He must have been in class. Luckily, I had another helper to step in and hold one end of the trim while I nailed it off.

[To be continued. To help support Sippican Cottage, tell a friend about us, link to us, subscribe for our intermittent updates, hit the tip jar, or buy a book. Thanks!]

Home Depot Baklava

We’re moving right along now. If you ever have to install kitchen cabinets, take it from me, install the uppers first. It’s tough on your back to reach over the lowers to work on the uppers. Make your life still easier by screwing a cleat on the wall at 54″ above the floor, then resting the upper cabinet on it while you affix it to the wall. The 54″ measurement is 36″ high cabinets and counter plus 18″ of clearance between the counter and the upper cabs. Puts lots of very big screws directly into studs and/or blocking you put in the wall, because cabinets get full of dishware and they’re very heavy when loaded. The real problem with cabinets coming unfastened from the wall and turning all your dishes into china gravel and sending you to the hospital is generally not just the weight. People stand on things to reach high up, and grab the cabinet if (when) they slip, and they pull the cabinet away from the wall. Add that pulling motion to the downward weight of the dishware, and you get earthquake-level destruction.

To keep the kitchen humming, we made a place for dishes and glasses right away. The drawer cabinet on the left has a piece of leftover plywood covered with shellac overspray for a (temporary) countertop, but it’s full of everything to set a table and so forth:

I don’t know why kitchens have acres of cabinet doors in them. I have found that pretty much everything below waist level should be in drawers, not shelves inside cabinets inside doors. With a few exceptions that we’ll get to, all the upper cabinets should either be open, or plain shelves. Kitchens would be better with a lot fewer cabinets, with a spacious pantry right next to it to gather all the clutter in one place. Pantries show everything to you all at once when you’re looking for something, but keep your kitchen proper from being messy. The rule of thumb I use is: Can a stranger find what they’re looking for in your kitchen? If not, you have too many cabinets.

Alrighty, then. With the bad sink demolished and the wall patched up, we can move the stove to its final location. You may have noticed an unexplained elevator shaft or laundry chute or something standing in the corner all of a sudden. It’s empty, except up high as a place where the HVAC ducts make their turn to feed the bathroom. What gives?

I’ll tell you what gives. I. Hate. Corner Cabinets. Hate’m. I despise lazy susans and detest every form of pull-out folderol that kitchen manufacturers use to try to convince you that corner cabinets aren’t a colossal waste of time and money. They never, ever work. Like most problems, I solve it by ignoring it. No corner cabinet is best corner cabinet. The walls will have cabinet runs that die into them, and that’s that.

We’ve installed more subfloor as we go, but we can’t put it off any longer. The big back wall with the windows has got to be stripped down to… I don’t know what, exactly. It was a Home Depot baklava of layers. I started pulling things off and wondered if I ever get to something solid I could trust to start finishing the walls.

I’ve seen all sorts of renovations over the years, and I have a library card and all, but I had to search my mind pretty hard to figure out what I was pulling off the wall.

Way in the cobwebbed back pages of my mind, where I keep terrifying memories of homasote horrors and abitibi atrocities I have known, I ran out of bogeymen. Eventually there was this black, fuzzy membrane glued on like the devil that completely baffled me. It didn’t taste like asbestos, so I wasn’t worried exactly, just stumped. After a while, I just looked at the kid and said: Come on down to Crazy Sippican’s Kitchen! Everything must go! We nuked it from orbit, like we should have right away. We took all the horsehair plaster off the lath, and all the layers over it, and were done with wondering.

I learned to work neat many years ago. We vacuumed the lath to keep plaster dust haboobs to a minimum when you opened a door or window. This is how you stay married, people. Diamond jewelry and six-pack abdomens can only get you so far, and eventually you’re going to be required to keep horsehair out of the potato salad to keep the magic alive.

We fixed the electricity while the wall was somewhat open, and then drywalled.  We minimized horizontal seams that would need to be taped, and saved some waste in the sheets of drywall, by laying a strip at the top first, and then filling in the slightly less than eight feet below it. Or we’re just strange, and did it that way for no sensible reason. I can’t remember.

The inspector signed off on it, so I assume it turned out OK either way.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting.]


I’m an odd person. That oddity suggest additional oddities to people that don’t know me that well. My sister in law asked my wife if I was planning on leaving the drain pipe from the upstairs bathroom hanging suspended and exposed just below the ceiling in the kitchen. Apparently it’s in my scope of behaviors to possibly do that. Look out for me. I might lash out and plumb any which way at any time.

But we’re making practical accommodations to our circumstances. We’re not daft. The ceilings in the house are something like nine feet high, depending on how many additional ceilings have been added to them over the years. We can solve our plumbing and HVAC problems using soffits. There isn’t enough room in the floor for plumbing to be hidden in it, and there are big timbers in the walls that block attempts to get plumbing around corners where you need it. Soffits are up high where only the cat goes, so they’re not intrusive.

Here’s an important interim step. The sink and the dishwasher are installed and working. The kitchen can’t be out of action for more than an hour at a time or you’ve failed as a renovator. Look at that pleasant window with a pleasant view for my pleasant wife to wash dishes for her pleasant children, and you know, me. We plopped a piece of demolished counter on top of the dishwasher, and plunked the coffee pot on it. The refrigerator continues to wander the kitchen aimlessly. It will eventually live across the aisle from the dishwasher, but that spot isn’t ready for prime time. Prime time comes just before paint time, by the way.

When the good sink works, you can get rid of the bad sink. The wall behind it was disaster, seven ways from Sunday. There was a little miniature room in there, built to produce a flat wall for the cabinets. It looked like an opportunity.

As you can observe from the Pisa-angled 2×4 stud arrangement, dyspeptic dyslexic drunkards have been renovating my house since Calvin Coolidge was making four-sentence State of the Union speeches.  But I realized right away the hidey-hole void was perfect for getting HVAC ducts into the back of the house. Yeah, I installed an entire HVAC system soon after all this. I’ll bore you with that later. But after running up and down the stairs forty times, and mis-measuring thirty-nine times, I figured that I could run an 8″ round duct inside that wall, straight up to the unheated back office and new bathroom (yeah, I’ll write about that, too, I’m warning you). On the way by, I could branch off and heat and cool the kitchen and the nearby master bathroom. Under the floor, it was a straight shot in a joist bay to the air handler plenum in the basement. Beautiful.

We put in ducts for later, filled up at least ten percent of the mouseholes with expanding foam, filled the cavity with insulation, and drywalled it closed. We were getting to the point where we needed kitchen cabinets. We couldn’t afford any, but luckily I already owned a set. No, Really. When life gives you lemons, some people suggest making lemonade. I march to a different drummer (Joe Morello), and I say, “Tell life to pound sand and slash at it with a box cutter and squirt lemon juice in the wounds.”

Quite a few years ago, I got stiffed at the most inopportune moment by a customer who begged me to build them a set of kitchen cabinets. I got a deposit, and bought a whole lot of material, because kitchens need acres of plywood and beaucoup ball-bearing slides and hinges galore (that’s a good stripper name) and many boardzawood. I worked diligently to produce an entire set of cabinet carcases from solid birch ply. The plywood was expensive, and pre-finished with a very tough polyester resin-type coating. As agreed in our contract, when I was half done, I asked for the second of three payments. This payment was due smack dab at the outset of the great recession, and I needed it. I had already been stiffed about a dozen times in succession when this woman joined the party. She didn’t just stiff me for the second payment, oh no. She somehow got the credit card company to claw back the first payment, too. Everyone at the various credit card offices and my bank and the payment acceptance place was very nice about it. They cheered me up by commiserating with me that I was entirely in the right, but tough luck, we’re taking the money anyway. I could have sued her, I suppose. I hear lawyers are cheap.

So I’ve had a dozen or so kitchen cabinet shells ready to go since the president had a drawl. I was saving them for a rainy day. Financial rain has been falling for the last fifteen years or so, so I figured now was the time. After all, they were mine. I mixed shellac and dark walnut pigment and sprayed the interiors that would be visible if the cabinets were open. I made the frames, door fronts, and doors out of any bits of hardwood hanging around the workshop, including some stuff I pulled off the walls in the kitchen. We salvaged the cup pulls from around the house, and spray painted them a bronze-y color. The exteriors are painted with some sort of magic potion they came up with recently, water based alkyd paint. Forget flying cars, we’ve got water based alkyd paint. That’s the future.

So I made lemonade, I guess, after all. But I do have a box cutter in my tool belt at all times, should the opportunity arise.

[No man writes for nobody. If you want to support Sippican Cottage, tell your internet friends the pixels are free here, and worth it. Thanks!]

The It Might Still Work, But I Doubt It Age

We have to fix the floor.

Check that. I ain’t fixing the floor. I know how. I also know it’s not worth the effort. I’ve got to flatten it out some, and get a substrate down we can work on. That’s a worthwhile expenditure of a few pennies and some effort.

I mentioned creep in an earlier essay. If you’ve just tuned in, I wasn’t referring to any of my relatives. Creep is the deformation of wood structural members over time. The kitchen floor was a textbook example of creep. The span was too long, the floor slowly sagged in the middle, the joists and the occupants got used to their new shape, and eventually the floor became a permanently dished shape. This was exaggerated by the slumping of the back of the house, because the side walls didn’t slump as badly as the back wall. That made the kitchen floor dished in all directions.

It would have been a major overhaul to sister new joists under the kitchen floor after jacking it back up. No thanks. The house is all roly-poly anyway. Let’s flatten out the floor as best we can and move on.

First, we take an out-of focus snapshot of the opening where the kitchen meets the dining room. It was essentially a ramp going up. We cut out the nasty birch strip flooring, and sanded the hump at the edge of the dip with a belt sander. The floor was all patched right there anyway. Even if we could refinish the birch, it would have looked like a quilt sewn by a blind aunt when we were done.

The we installed a piece of exterior plywood we had kicking around. We lowered the leading edge at the dining room to take into account the thickness of the new subfloor we were about to lay on top of it. That took the curse off the uphill climb from kitchen to dining. We shimmed and glued and nailed it to death.

There was a worse dip where the sink would be placed. The floor basically had a trench in it right there. A million footfalls in front of the run of cabinets there a century ago was responsible, I’ll bet. A fully loaded refrigerator had stood there for decades as well, slowly tipping forward as the floor sagged away from the exterior wall. We need to deal with the dip. I went to the local lumber yard and asked for some floor leveler. They had this substance they called floor leveler, that was labeled floor leveler, and they honestly believed was floor leveler. It was all they had, so I decided to call it floor leveler, too.

Back in the day, we used to buy stuff that was basically mortar. It worked pretty well. This stuff was basically drywall compound. I kept looking at the label, and the floor, and the goo in the bucket, and wondered where society had lost its way in the last twenty years. I gave it an honest shot.

The next day, it had already started to crumble. If you know anything about these types of remodeling jobs, the bete noire of all flooring jobs is a crunchy sound when you walk over a newly installed floor. After you’ve tiled or whatever, it’s too late to fix it. It sounds like you’re walking on shredded wheat as you make your way to your computer to rip your flooring installer a new one on Yelp. I hit the patch with a hammer a couple of times, and the whole thing popped out. Then I did what I should have done in the first place. Experience is a cruel teacher, but men will learn from no other, said some famous guy who can go piss up a rope for pointing that out to me and my floor.

Let’s fill it in solid.

I laid a stick across the Cumberland Gap of floors, from high spot to high spot, and measured and marked the depths in various places, and traced the outline of the area we had to fill. The deepest part was about 3/4″, so we cut an oval piece of 1/4″ subfloor, and beveled the edges with a belt sander. Then we did it again, twice, in ever increasing areas, until the dippity-do was filled in. I glued and nailed that sumbitch to death. Then we laid sheets of subfloor over the whole thing.

The adhesive was the same brand I used to use. It didn’t smell bad, which was a bad sign. It used to make your eyes water and gave you headaches and the occasional out-of-body, transcendental vision. If you got it on your skin you’d wear it for weeks.  Now the stuff just lays there and sorta pretends it’s glue.

I know all about ages. There was the Jazz Age, and the Atomic Age, and the Information Age. I went to school in the Bronze Age, myself. Anyway, I think we should name the 2020s as the “It Might Still Work, But I Doubt It Age.” It doesn’t roll off the tongue though, so I’ll keep working on it.

I nailed the dickens out of the subfloor with ring-shank underlayment nails. It is hard as hell to bang ring shank nails into an ancient birch subfloor, so I got to do the whole thing myself while my spare heir got to stand behind me and learn how to swear by listening to me.

I see my knees have given out by this time. We’re only doing three sheets of subflooring right now. That’s 96 square feet of floor, and it didn’t even cover half of the floor in there. Victorian houses have big rooms, people.

But with the smooth, flat floor right there, we can install the sink for good, right next to the open cabinet for the dishwasher. The pex piping runs along the back wall behind the dishwasher, and up into the sink cabinet through two ready-made punchouts in the cabinet. You can see how deep the left hand basin is in this picture (the black rectangle on the left).

Reader and commenter blackwing was wondering in the comments about our building inspector:

I like the picture of your construction supervisor in the last picture. Has he/she been helping by sticking their head right into where you’re working every step of the way?

Who, me?

Apparently blackwing is a veteran of the cat-owning wars.

[More kitchen folderol tomorrow. If you’d like to support Sippican Cottage, tell a friend about us, leave a comment, subscribe for (ir)regular updates, buy a book, or hit the tip jar. Thanks!]

Maybe You’re Amazed

The Faces performing Paul McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed in 1972.

Ronnie Lane is the hobbit bass player, delivering the first lines with his patented “turkey in the rain” pose. Then Mr. Gravel chimes in and the thing takes off. The Rolling Stones ran out of Micks and Brians, and needed a lead guitar player who didn’t need to be called that, because, you know, Keith Richards. They drafted Ron Wood to keep the Faces from being better than they were indefinitely. Rod the Mod hadn’t entered his scarves and feathers phase yet, but he obviously already wanted to know if you thought he was sexy.

The Faces sounded like they’d only been playing together since earlier in the day, or forever and a day, and at the same time, too. That’s alright. Live performances should have an element of risk in them. Tightrope walking isn’t interesting because a guy walks around. It’s only compelling because he might fall while he does it. The Faces never stumble, but they walk along the edge, don’t they?

And Ronnie Wood can always tune his guitar after the show. It’s not that important.

The Pompeii of Plumbing

So I told you yesterday that we got really lucky.  Of course I’m lucky my wife stays married to me despite the myriad of reasons not to, and she’s lucky that I don’t mind that she can’t take a picture to save her soul. Like that last one, which appears to be taken underwater. Anyway, we were lucky together, at the local flea market.

They didn’t call it a flea market. They called it a barn sale, because that sounds better to tourists, I guess. Maine has plenty of places to flense the flesh from unwary antique lovers from out of state, but it’s also got all sorts of people selling all sorts of things for short money in sheds and mostly abandoned buildings and tents by the side of the road. The barn guy had all his stuff in a garage with a tent outside it. It was in an out-of-the-way place, in a slack season, so the proprietor was happy to see us and make a deal. He had this sink.

It’s a pretty big cast iron sink, with two basins. The left-hand basin is really deep. Unlike most old cast iron sinks, it wasn’t chipped around the edges or the drain holes, and wonder of wonders, it still had the sliding panel you can (almost) see on the left in the picture. If you’ve ever wondered why these old sinks have that thin, flat chamfer around the top edge, this is why. The panel is really useful, so people throw it away or lose it, because people. The panel slides back and forth on the groove, and entirely covers 1/2 of the sink at a time. If you have a cat that likes prospecting in the sink for bacon residue, it’s the perfect solution for hiding the pan until you get around to washing it.

Who, me?

It functions perfectly as a drain board for the dish rack, too, and that’s how we use it. It frees up two feet of counter space, and the sink is still always usable.

Kitchen sinks, especially big honking ones and Victorian jobs, are in high demand these days. If you go to an old house parts store looking for a sink like this, bring a grand or two with you. The fellow with the barn sale sign and no barn had been using the sink as an ashtray. There was about four thousand cigarette butts piled on top of an inch of sand in both sides of the sink. Wonder of wonders, the sink was sitting on its original steel cabinet. The cabinet looked like it had been thrown from a second story window, once or twice, or maybe a third time just for fun. The inside bottom panel was covered with many layers of shelf paper, dried chemicals, and rust stains.

“What do you want for this?”

He looked us up and down. I assume he assumed we were locals, and gave us the local price.

“Eighty-five bucks.”

“What about the cabinet?”

“I’ll throw that in, if you don’t make me help you lift this thing.”

You’d need a degree in quantum mechanics to figure out the portion of a second it took us to say yes.  We counted 85 bucks in his hand, and went home to get a teenager to help me muscle it into the truck. We were taking a bit of a chance on it, as pawing around in the ashes might not have revealed some rusty spot hidden in this Pompeii of plumbing, but it was worth it. Hell, it’s hard to find a crappy stainless steel drop-in kitchen basin for under a hundred bucks these days.

Once we got it home, we risked getting third-hand-cancer from the butts, but we cleaned it out thoroughly. There was caulking residue and various stains, but they came right off with a little acetone on a rag. The thing was essentially spotless.

The cabinet looked so rough that I planned on making a wooden replacement and chucking out the metal one. I decided to give renovation a shot, first, because even if I ruined it further by banging on it, nothing of value would be lost. We were playing with house money, as it were. So I banged the dents out of the sides. The thing started to sit flat after that. I took the doors off their pivot hinges, and did a little sloppy surgery on their hinge pins, and they started working again. I tried the acetone on the mess in the bottom of the cabinet, and the whole lasagna of shelf papers and goo peeled off in a sheet like a facial mask. The bottom of the cabinet wasn’t even rusty, another miracle.

After I got tired of beating on it, I went to the hardware store and bought some epoxy spray paint for appliances. I was really surprised, but the stuff really worked. The cabinet looked like new, and ended up with a very durable finish on it.

The sink required two hanging brackets to be affixed to the wall, and only one came with it. But it’s such a standard thing, still in use, that we were able to order one online for a few bucks. But the sink/bracket/cabinet combo would have to be assembled with a precision that my house laughs at. I’m not complaining, but I was planning on fitting the cabinet to the slope-y floors and cockeyed walls, not the other way around. Metal cabinets don’t do “fitting.” You adjust yourself to them, not the other way around, like the IRS or plastic Adirondack chairs. I’d have to fix the floor better.

[To be continued. If you enoy reading Sippican Cottage and want to help us out, tell a friend about us. Thanks!]

Luck Is Where You Find It

There it is. The scene of the refrigerator crime. The corpse has been moved, but there’s a greasy outline of it on the wall to help with forensics

I told you I was lucky. You don’t believe me, because I recount stories about hitting my thumb over and over and getting Lyme disease and discovering a geyser of excrement in my basement and snow in my driveway. Everyone moved two times zones and a couple of meridians or something else cartographic just to get away from that last one. They have hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires and mudslides and droughts and tornadoes and riots, but that’s nothing compared with being forced to push a plastic shovel up and down the walk a dozen times a season. But I must insist, I’m lucky.

Take this kitchen for example. It’s not a little wrong. That would be unlucky. It’s exactly wrong. That’s lucky. The refrigerator is where the sink should go. The sink is where the stove should go. The stove is where nothing should go. It’s unbelievably lucky, because I can work on the places where stuff is going to end up while it’s still in use where it should never have gone in the first place.

Regular construction has a more or less predictable set of operations. You make a plan, you buy your stuff, you stack it on-site, you assemble your workforce, and then you perform each step of the construction process to its completion before moving on to the next one. Eventually it’s done. You can’t do that in an occupied house. If it’s your own house, you can get away with much more hardship than if you’re doing construction for money for strangers. There are still limits, however. After all, there are a lot of knives handy in the kitchen, and if there’s no running water or electricity in there for long periods, certain ideas enter a frustrated homeowner’s mind.

First things first, though. It’s pitch dark in there since we cut the power to all the knob and tube wiring. There are no overhead lights working anywhere in the house now. It’s dumb to work in the dark unless you’re a gigolo or a projectionist. Luckily (there’s that word again), we have no money. If we had lots of money, we’d spend endless hours of time and oodles of dough while trying to select from the dizzying array of perfectly hideous light fixtures that every lighting store sells. I assume that’s how it works, I’ve never been inside a lighting store. I just noticed that no matter how much money people have to spend, pretty much all light fixtures that aren’t antique reproductions or salvage are awful-looking. If there were any good looking ones in there, I figure someone would have bought one by accident occasionally. LED ceiling cans to the rescue! Luckily, we were poor, and couldn’t afford any light fixtures. So what? We want light, not Calder sculptures with Edison bulbs and switches.

Back when we went shopping, the government was trying to make everyone forget about that time they attempted to force us all to put curlicue mercury hand grenades in all our light sockets. It didn’t work, so they decided to subsidize LED light bulbs to keep us from buying weird Mexican incandescents at the dollar store and ruining the ecobiospristinowildernessoceanoearthosphere and stuff. I’m sure the bulbs weren’t cheap to make, but they sure were cheap to buy that year. We cut five holes in the ceiling, and fished wires in a daisy chain from one to the next to the switch. This was the easiest time I’ve ever had fishing romex wire in any house, because the joist bays were 34 freaking feet long, remember? Nothing in the way.

So as I’ve bored you with already, there are really only three things in a kitchen: stove-fridge-sink. The rest is connective tissue. Get those right, and you’re bound to have a good kitchen. The refrigerator is on wheels, so he’s no problem. Move it aside and plug it back in. The stove is free-standing electric, so it doesn’t need to be installed into anything to work. It just needs a big, honking plug where it lands. The reefer was placed on the only wall with a window, along with a cabinet run. That’s where the sink will go, because if my wife has to wash one more dish with a cabinet door in her face, well, there’s those knives again. Rule number one in any kitchen is to put the sink under a window. Period. Stuck in an island isn’t as daft as putting a cooktop there, but it’s still pretty goofy if you ask me. You’re reading this, so you did ask me.

Ah, all the French designers say the layered look is in this year. It was in every year for the last century at my house. Layers of paint and plaster and paneling and homasote and wallpaper borders and linoleum and shelf paper, all held together with the ultimate adhesive, a clever mixture of nicotine and spider webs and cooking grease. If our predecessors kept laying it on like that, the room would have ended up about the size of a phone booth, with six-foot-thick walls. I was lucky there was no hope of salvaging any of it, so we could safely nuke it all and not feel sheepish.

Perhaps you’ll notice something else dumb and lucky in this photo. Not my son. If he was lucky, he wouldn’t be helping me. I’m referring to that plastic pipe sticking out of the wall. Back when we enjoyed our geyser of excrement, we discovered a clean out and drain in the basement on the opposite side of the house from the bathroom. It’s more or less right under that pipe you see there. We added a bath, upstairs in that hideous blue room we showed you yesterday. We ran the DWV (drain, waste, vent) pipe along the ceiling in the kitchen, bored a hole in the outside wall, and ran the pipe down two floors to the main drain leaving the house. Luckily, while we were at it, we remembered to stub out a kitchen sink drain on the way by.

The lad is replacing the lath we demolished. We put in very beefy blocking, which is leftover blocks of framing lumber set between the studs and screwed to a fare-thee-well. When you mount cabinets and sinks and things to a wall that has wood lath, it’s deuced difficult to find studs after the fact. Stud finders are confused by the lath. But we keep the lath, and restore it with new stuff we ripped from leftover lumber, to keep the wall the correct thickness. Then we replace the old horsehair plaster coats with 1/2″ drywall sheets. The blocking lets us find sturdy screwing spots wherever we need them, without cursing at the stud finder all day.

This next picture is a good illustration of the incremental aspect of the work. We ran the pex plumbing on the surface, because the house is timber framed, and I didn’t relish the idea of trying to bore holes in the big wooden members, and disturbing all the loose rockwool insulation, just to get the plumbing in the wall. I’ll be making the cabinets, and the plumbing will be hidden behind the dishwasher and the cabinets anyway. We wired a couple of new GFCI plugs. We had to tape and finish the drywall to keep going. We’ll have to do all the same operations three or four more times to keep from disturbing the whole kitchen at once. It’s not as efficient, but it’s necessary.

The building inspector showed up.

She said it looked OK, so we proceeded. But the new hot and cold water pipe would have to be ripped out, however, because we got really lucky right after this.

[To be continued]

This Old Dilapidated House

If you’ve just tuned in, we’re fixing our deplorable kitchen in our $24,000 house, in fits and starts, with no money. I know, I make it sound so sexy when I put it like that. Who hasn’t dreamed of living in a tumbledown Victorian dustcatcher with a bombed-out kitchen, two hours north of civilization, that occasionally sports four feet of snow on the roof?

I really didn’t mind the four feet of snow on the roof at first, because it plugged up all the holes where the squirrels went in and out. Old farmers say that snow is the poor man’s fertilizer. Like most old wives tales, it sounds silly, but it’s right on the money. Snow has nitrogen in it, and it enriches the soil when it melts. I didn’t need any nitrogen in my attic, but I didn’t need any more squirrels, either, so it worked out for me anyway.

Oh how my wife suffered as we tried to get the house propped up enough to really work on the kitchen. She prepared countless meals for the four of us in that makeshift mess. Luckily, we got a dishwasher right away. It was a housewarming gift from a generous relative. We kept it in our bedroom closet for years, and stored sweaters in it, because if you’ve got squirrels and mice and spiders and bees and flies and bats in your house, you probably have moths, too, we figured. I assured my wife that we’d only have to wash dishes by hand until I leveled the floor in the kitchen enough to install the dishwasher properly. We had to jack up the back of the house first. My wife washed a lot of dishes in a tiny, rusty, stainless steel basin, with her back facing the windows, and her face staring at a tatty cabinet door the whole time, with a brand new dishwasher slumbering in the closet. Why yes, I’m still married. Why do you ask?

That reminds me of an opinion I’ve held for most of my life. It’s especially trenchant when it comes to home design and renovation: Never listen to what people say. Just watch what they do. As a useful aphorism, it’s right up there with professor Gaye’s daisy, believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear. You see, I’ve been in a lot of different homes of all kinds, and tried to help people alter them to make them more pleasant to live in. I only rarely actually made houses more pleasant to live in, but it wasn’t entirely my fault. I was forced to listen to what people said, because doing what they told me instead of what I thought they should do was the only way to get them to sign the checks.

I was always very specific with my input. I’d stress that it wasn’t because I didn’t like what they were going to do, that they shouldn’t do it.  It was because I knew they wouldn’t like it after it was done. It’s a difficult concept to get across. Everyone just wants what they want, and they don’t know or care why they want it, but boy howdy do they want it. The home and garden industry is based on it. Whenever you hear a woman on a TV show say something ticks all her boxes, the marketers must smile and buy another sailboat. People are regurgitating what they’ve been taught, not thinking. Home shows are based on envy, not comfort.

So, for instance, I’ve given up counseling people that they don’t want a huge soaking tub in their bathroom in front of a giant expanse of windows. Men don’t take baths, and women will not take a bath in front of a big window, no matter what they tell you. It’s a colossal waste of money, but everyone wants it, and that’s that. After they move in they board up the window with blinds and go in the shower stall to wash themselves and pay the elephantine mortgage and are happy. Sort of.

I watched my wife struggle with what she had, so it was easy to determine what she really needed to improve the kitchen. Eventually, she got a working kitchen by her standards, not social media’s idea of it. When you see someone trying to do something with lots of impediments in their way, but they keep going anyway, you can trust that they’re serious, and figure out how to help them. People who think they’ll exercise if they only had a gym membership is the obverse of this coin. I doubt it.

So where can you go for good advice about home design and renovation? Beats me. For the most part, you have to have a library card and some common sense, not premium cable and YouTube red. You can find stuff on the internet, but you essentially have to know the answer before you start, because you’ll have to look for it in a sea of wrongness. Let me give you a concrete example.

This Old House is the granddaddy of home improvement shows. Their original carpenter, Norm Abram, was like a god, and his successor, Tom Silva, was at least a vestal virgin or something. So the last time I remember seeing anything from that show, someone asks Tom Silva how to tell if a wall in an old house is load bearing or not, and he tells them if the wall is made with 2″ x 3″ studs instead of 2″ x 4″ studs, it’s not load bearing, and you can tear it out to achieve the huge, undifferentiated space everyone craves for some reason.

Tom should know better. The former occupants of our house didn’t. They wanted to take out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, and they did. The wall was built with 2x3s, so they figured why not? The house didn’t fall down or anything, it’s true. That minute. But another of my favorites sayings comes into play, regarding the law of unintended consequences: something else happens. Here’s the something else:

That’s the room directly over the kitchen. Let’s zoom in on the baseboard at the floor, directly over the spot where the wall used to be, but currently wasn’t:

The floor had sagged over an inch where the wall had been removed. The room on the other side had the same dished-out gap at the floor. The dining room ceiling on the other side of the missing wall had a huge sag in it. So they house didn’t fall down, but it was falling down. Why for, you might ask in the vernacular? Because you have to understand what’s going on before you know how to fix things, or in this case, break things.

What guys like Tom and the former residents don’t know or don’t care about, is that earlier generations had reasons for doing what they did, and you have to understand their thinking before you go Dresden 1945 on walls and things.

The lumber used in old houses (ours is from 1901) is undersized for what it’s doing. The floor joists here are only 2 x 7 framing lumber. There’s no such thing as a 2×7 at the lumber yard, or on a span chart nowadays. They’re actually 2 inches thick by 7 inches, unlike a modern 2×8, which is 1-1/2″ by 7-1/4″, but they’re still not stiff enough to span long lengths. How long a length are they spanning? Why, 34 goldang, dadgum, motherloving feet, my friends.

Framing lumber doesn’t come in 34 foot lengths anymore, but it did then. If you don’t believe me, call a lumber yard and ask for price on 2″x 7″x 34′ joists. You’ll be on hold for a long time, and may hear giggling on the other end of the phone. Why would carpenters use 34-foot long joists to span from the back wall of the house, all the way across the kitchen, all the way across the dining room, ending when they got to a bearing wall in the living room? Because they knew there would be an interior partition about halfway to cut the span in half.

Tom wasn’t crazy, a 2″ x 3″ framed wall isn’t wide enough to lap joists on top of. That’s what he thinks of as a bearing wall, because he’s accustomed to ordering lumber from today’s lumber yard. Our wall was plenty strong and wide enough to use it as an intermediate support. They framed this partition with 2 x 3s simply to end up with the correct wall thickness after layers of wooden lath and three layers of plaster was applied to both sides of the wall, not because the wall wasn’t doing anything structural.

So, let’s take out the sag, and add some wall space back. People are crazy to remove all the walls in their houses to achieve an open plan, but walls are useful, especially in a kitchen. The floor above made some interesting noises when we lifted it up, but we didn’t have 1″ gaps under the baseboards anymore.

As you can see, all the former occupants accomplished with their open plan was to open up a vista of the side of the wretched kitchen cabinets they installed ten minutes later. We’ll put the wall back, with a big 6′ x 7′ opening remaining between the kitchen and dining room. Just how open do you need?

[To be continued, of course. If you’d like to support this blog, keep reading, recommend us to a friend, leave a comment, or hit the tip jar. Thanks!]

Time Won’t Let Me

Alrighty, we’re going to fix this kitchen. We’re going to fix it but good. We’re going to fix the plumbing. We’re going to fix the electrical. We’re going to fix the floor. We’re going to…

Hmm. “Going” is a verb. I think it’s a future tense of the verb “to be.” It’s good that it was in the future tense, because it fit in with our circumstances perfectly. In the future, we’d all be richer and smarter and more popular. Hell, the way our minds work, in the future we’d be younger, too, you just wait and see. And we’d have a great kitchen to be younger in.

But we had to live in this house right away. To quote those famous philosophers, The Outsiders, time won’t let me wait that long. And we couldn’t live in it the way we found it. We’re daft, but not daft enough to cook on a stove with a wood shingle backsplash. So my wife and I gnawed it over a bit, and decided what we could and should do right off. Non-negotiable stuff.

You’d be surprised how well you can adapt to your circumstances if you have no other choice. I also was kind of lucky, in that I’ve renovated lots of houses while the owners were still living in them. Experience in these matters helps. Some of these customers were, how can I put this delicately, demanding. They weren’t going to put up with much of any discomfort or mess. My family would be easy compared to them.

I remember one customer from way back in the day. She was some sort of harpy from Greek mythology. Her husband, while leaving for work, actually said, “Good luck” to me when he passed me in the driveway. I took it as an ill omen. I wasn’t disappointed.

One of the renovations on the agenda was redecorating their master bedroom. It was chock-a-block full of expensive furniture, and lots of bric-a-brac I couldn’t afford to drop without getting backing from a hedge fund first. I had a smallish crew working for me at the time, and I cautioned them over and over not to make a mess or break anything. We removed pictures from the walls, and stripped off wallpaper to begin. Then we patched all the plaster, because the walls would be changed to paint, and we prepared and primed the wood trim.

I covered everything in the room with brand new, sparkling white, padded canvas dropcloths, because I had an inkling how this job was going to go. At the end of the day, I took out Polaroid photos I’d taken before we began, and we put everything back precisely where it was before we started. Then I sent the crew out of the room, and slowly crawled backwards out of the room on my knees, wiping the floor down with a sponge as I went. It was immaculate. We’d have to move and cover everything again the next day, but the customer specified that she wouldn’t put up with any disruption of her normal routine.

She wasn’t home when we finished, so we locked the door and I drove the 45 minutes home. When I got there, I was greeted by several VERY AGITATED voicemail messages indicating that the house was a mess, and I’d better get back there pronto, or go to my lawyer’s office, my choice. I drove back.

I stood in the bedroom with the husband and wife, and I tell you that place was cleaner than an operating room. I was flummoxed.

She said, “Well?”

“Well, it looks pretty clean to me. Can you give me some idea of the problem you’re seeing?”

“It’s obvious. Don’t play dumb.”

I almost told her it wasn’t an act, but thought the better of it.

“I don’t get it.”

“You forgot to hang the pictures up.”

“Er, ma’am, we’re going to be painting those walls tomorrow, and the hooks you used to hang the pictures were adhesive strips, stuck to the wallpaper we removed.”

“You didn’t bring hooks?”

“No, I didn’t bring hooks.”

“Typical.” She stomped out of the room.

The husband got interested in the ceiling all of a sudden, and other things other than looking at me. At that moment, I looked down at the night table, and noticed one of those orange plastic containers that prescription drugs are dispensed in. I’m used to seeing regular sized containers, tiny little cylinders with white caps and a typed label, but this one was the size of a can of motor oil. The cap was off, and there was a pitcher of water and a glass next to it. I’ve never seen that many pills in one place outside a pharmacy.

The husband must have noticed a modestly horrified look on my face, and said, “That’s my wife’s prescription for valium. But honestly, it really doesn’t matter which one of us takes them, as long as one of us does.”

It took all my strength not to laugh like a hyena until I was safely in the truck with the window rolled up.

So I do know how to work around people, even people I’m married to. We decided on the bare minimum we could accomplish right away. The most bang for the buck, as it were. We demolished the baseboard heat, to cut down on cut ankles. I cut the power to the knob and tube wiring, and my wife made do with a torchiere in there. We removed the shingled backsplashes, and then made temp backsplashes with cheap shelf paper stuck on cheap unfinished hardboard. I went to the hardware store and bought a random assortment of plastic parts, and made the sink drain a bit better. We ran pex plumbing to the sink, the second of many such runs in the house. C’mon, you know the toilet was first.

I demolished all the unsafe plugs and wires, and put cover plates on all the boxes. We bought a bunch of extra cover plates and screwed them over the largest holes in the floors, which inconvenienced the mice somewhat.

A neighbor came by and told us one of their relatives was throwing away a dozen vinyl windows. They were replacing them with other vinyl windows because Ricky Roma sells windows in Maine now, I guess. Anyway, would we like the old ones? Hot damn, yes.

The donor house was as old as ours, and may have been built by the same people in 1901. The windows were exactly the same height as ours, although slightly skinnier. Fool luck is the best kind. I could pad out the frames a little in width, with no adjustment for height, and pop them in. Fantastic. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but people in Maine are nice, present company excluded.

The spare heir steamed off the hideous wallpaper border. It was winter, and we fought over the steamer job to keep warm. I’m meaner than him, but his elbows are sharp and he won out.

Then I went rooting around in the basement and found some kind of yellow wall paint, and we gave the place a coat to take the curse off it.

We painted right over the paneling, because I was too afraid to look behind it without a stash of valium of my own. Please note that the ceiling molding was installed upside down. It made my eye twitch every day I entered the room until we finally got around to really fixing the kitchen. We’ll show you that, starting tomorrow.

Say, What Is a Kitchen, Anyway?

Exhibit A: Not really a kitchen, unless they’re going to eat that horse.

Say, what’s a kitchen?

No, really, I’m asking. I’ve seen television once or twice, and I’ve gotten confused about what a kitchen is for. I used to think it was a room in your house where food is stored, and prepared, and sometimes eaten. Heaven help me I don’t know what it is now.

First of all, I apologize for referring to anything inside a house as a “room.” As I understand it, if a TV host slips up while reading their cue cards and utters the word “room,” a kind of SWAT team rushes onto the set, gags and hogties them, and takes them off to a This Old House gulag. They’re heavily drugged, given electroshocks and other assorted mental massages, until they chant, “It’s a space, it’s a space, it’s a space…” and then released back into the Home and Garden gene pool. Of course, if you go outside the house, and put up an awning, buy a $2,000 grill, and arrange some plastic chairs around it, it’s an “outdoor room.” Don’t ask me how everything got backwards, I didn’t make the rules.

Hmm. Upon reflection, you can ask me. I actually know who started this fad of calling a room a space, and a space a room. His name was Bruno Zevi, and he wrote the most destructive book in the history of the printing press, Architecture as Space.

Now, you might think that’s a bold claim on my part. There were some books written by some other dastards back in the day that did a lot of damage. That brushy mustache guy’s self-help book caused a lot of trouble, for instance. The least funny Marx brother’s book got bad reviews from Solzhenitsyn, too. But Zevi’s got them all beat. He ruined housing, or at least talking about it, and nearly everyone lives in some sort of housing. Only a small portion of the population ever marches in torchlight parades or salutes missiles as they roll by the grandstands.

I went to architecture college until I wised up. I wised up plenty when they made me buy a copy of Architecture as Space, and told me this was the next big thing ooh la lah cutting edge hipster revolutionary foofarah, and I’d better get with the program, buster, and learn it. Because I was paying for my education with money I earned, instead of borrowed, I decided to actually read the thing. I’ll save you some trouble, and sum up its contents: Three hundred pages of drivel, and don’t forget to call everything a space! The end. My classmates apparently only remember the title, and wave their arms and call everything THE SPACE. I dropped out and built houses with rooms in them and called them that.

I was also front and center for the final destruction of the modern kitchen. Ramming a run of cabinets into the corner of an undifferentiated chasm where three rooms used to go was just the warmup, architecturally. Now they’ve taken to putting the cooktop in the island, facing out into the great beyond. It’s an especially piquant way to cook when there’s seating on the opposite side of the island. I don’t know about you, but I like to eat while perched on a stool with bubbling cauldrons and pans spitting grease at me. It makes me feel like I’m an extra in Macbeth.

So where did this bad idea come from? Where all bad ideas come from, television. A long time ago, I met Julia Child. She wanted me to do some work on her house in Cambridge, Mass. She was a stalwart lady. She was one of the few customers I’ve encountered who was tall enough to look me straight in the eye. She was as pleasant as rain in the desert. She needed this and that done in her house, and showed me around. I was in the kitchen where they filmed some seasons of her show. It was a perfectly traditional layout, and quite pleasant. She told me that the TV people installed a big island with cooktops in the middle of the room for her to cook on, so the audience could see what she was doing. She also told me that no one in their right mind would cook on a setup like that if they had a choice. She had a big, gas range against the wall, with a flat area on both sides to hold stuff while she worked, and that was where she cooked when the camera was off. So according to Julia Child, everyone has lost their mind, because everyone saw her on TV facing the wrong way in the kitchen, and mimicked what they saw.

So what is a kitchen? It’s basically three things. A sink, a stove and a refrigerator. That’s it. They used to call it the work triangle. There were certain ratios for how far apart the three should be. These ratios are argued over endlessly. The ratios were right in the first place, so any discussion would be moot, but that never stopped anyone, especially since social media was invented. These ratios are like discussing (yelling at AM radio hosts) whether the Patriots need linebackers more than wide receivers in the draft. You can talk about the topic endlessly, and never have to come to any conclusions, because Belichick always picks six defensive ends and a punt returner anyway.

The origins of the kitchen work triangle are piquant to me. You can trace it back through all the attempts to modify it with newer, bad ideas, to Lillian Moller Gilbreth. That’s right, sane kitchen design was born in Maine. It took the rest of the country to screw it up. Old Lily Gilbreth was married to maybe the greatest man that Maine ever produced, and she was no slouch herself. I listen to people like the Gilbreths. You should too.

So all we need is a sink place and a stove spot and a fridge locale. The people who lived in our house before us only got three of those things in the wrong place. Off to the drawing board.

[To be continued. If you’d like to support Sippican Cottage, tell your internet friends about us, and/or subscribe to our intermittent email blast. Thanks!]

Month: August 2023

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