Sunday, December 21, 2014


Paco looks so happy despite the carnage. I am thinking about a gin & tonic.
(ed. note This is the follow-up post (written seven months later) to the previous story about the saga of Paco's house. By this time all of the work had been completed and the house was back on the market. We finally sold it in Dec., 2009 and promptly flew to Santa Fe for some much-needed R&R).

In an effort to enlighten my readers who may have missed it, about 7 months ago Paco and I had to evict Harold the renter from Paco's house in the ‘burbs due to his blatant disregard for our property and the methodical wrecking of it. Once we got him out of there and assessed the full extent of the damage, it made “Extreme Makeover” look like “Flip this House”. From the foundation to the roof, there was so much damage that we ended up completely remodeling the house, tearing out the old foundation, re-carpeting, installing new tile floors and completely replacing the landscape. In the process we experienced the uncertainty, paranoia and anxiety of a mystery leak under the slab which turned out to be a result of damage to the foundation. If you have ever had a leak under your house that you cannot find and have had to spend weeks on end lying in a muddy ditch in the middle of February with a flashlight and a camera / roto-rooter contraption, staring into a foggy TV screen without the vaguest idea what the heck you’re look at, you will know what I am talking about. Sort of like discovering a bad leak underneath the Great Wall of China after the Big Fountain next to Tibet had been leaking for the last 500 years. Smaller scale, yes, but just as unnerving, frustrating and damaging. It was a 7-month long nightmare but now, thankfully, it is behind us.

Yesterday we finally finished this monumental project, spending one final, 8 hour marathon shift putting the finishing touches on the landscaping, mopping floors and spreading ‘decorative bark’ in the flower beds. There is now a “For Sale” sign in the front yard and our work as slave laborers is done. Now we just have to pray that it sells in the worst economic environment since the Great Depression. Who knew that 2 years after first putting Paco’s house on the market it would still be out there, albeit completely renovated and, as the Realtors like to say, "Move-in-ready!"

This experience has taught me many lessons in patience and perseverance, as well as the reality of just how unreliable and untrustworthy some people can be. But it has also shown me, as if I didn’t know already, how unselfish, noble and truly heroic Paco is. When he found out about the leak under the slab, after all of the foundation pillars had been filled back in with cement, he did not hesitate to dig them all out again by hand and crawl through those dark, scary spaces underneath the house in the dead of winter until he found all 3 leaks. He did not hesitate from jack hammering up all 600 sq ft of ceramic tile and then relaying all of it again, by himself. Even when the foundation people took all of the rock-hard Texas clay from the holes and dumped it all into his prized flower beds, creating 3 foot high mounds and burying all the sprinkler heads, he got out there with his shovel and dug it all out, repaired the sprinklers and then carefully restored the beds to their former glory. He did not shy away from fixing things in that house that no one would ever know were even broken, because he has that kind of integrity, gritty determination and unwavering dedication to making his house whole again. If that meant pouring thousands of dollars and man hours into the effort, so be it. No one can ever truly appreciate the sweat equity that went into every evening and weekend working to repair his house. He was determined to erase every dent, crack, ruined carpet, scratch, dead plant and any other evidence of the unbelievable kind of damage one person can cause. I may have lost a measure of faith in my fellow man over the damage done to our property, but this loss has been overshadowed by my love, respect, admiration and sheer awe of my husband. Paco taught me a valuable lesson in what one human being can accomplish when they put their heart and soul into a project like this simply because they will expect nothing less from themselves. For that this nightmare was worth it, at least to me. Paco may feel differently and probably doesn’t see anything special in what he has accomplished but believe me, it was truly heroic.
Epilogue (as they used to say on The FBI): a few weeks ago we saw that Paco's house is back on the market. The new owners had added a fancy swimming pool and a few other updates but for some reason have decided to sell. At least this time around the economy isn't in free-fall. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014


(ed. note I originally wrote this post in Feb., 2009 during the height of the housing crisis / eco-meltdown. Since I don't currently have a cleaver DIY project in the works and Henry is "somewhat" calmed down, I thought I would re-post this for your reading pleasure.)

Paco’s house, which he owned and was (mostly) living in when we got married in June of 2007, is still on the market. Well, actually, it isn’t currently for sale because the renter who was supposed to be taking care of it and “staging” it for potential buyers pretty much wrecked it, so it is now being “remodeled”. I use the term loosely because what we are really doing at the moment is trying to find a mystery leak that exists somewhere between the slab and the Arctic permafrost. As soon as said leak is located and repaired we can finish the new floors, have the new carpet installed, pull out all the dead plants, re-landscape and then put it back on the market. Just in time for the next wave of bad Housing Market news. You know, the stories that don’t want to go away about how no one has seen this much real estate carnage since the Tower of Babel collapsed due to poor communication amongst the residents? Yes, that one.

So here’s the story so far:

1) Harold, the house sitter, moved in last spring and promptly drove his car through the back wall of the garage because apparently he does not know how to operate the foot brake.

2) Harold did not water the back yard, causing the ground to shrivel up like the Mojave Desert in August. This, in turn, made the back of the house drop below street level, creating huge cracks in the interior walls that you could drive a semi- through. The foundation was destroyed and had to be completely re-done with new piers, necessitating jack hammering all of the floor tile and leaving a 3-inch layer of fine dust on every surface in the house, including the inside of every cupboard, drawer and closet in the house. The house sinking like the Titantic was also the cause of the illusive leak since it apparently tore lose a few pesky pipes as it settled to the bottom of the ocean.

3) Harold did not own decent furniture, or much furniture at all for that matter, even though he was supposed to be “staging” the house (see (1) above). Potential buyers were greeted at the front door by a basketball hoop in the living room, a mattress and box springs in the master bedroom and Hello Kitty slippers in the bathroom. This was not the kind of “staging” we had in mind.

4) We finally kicked Harold out last November. I wanted to go over there and literally KICK him but Paco forbade me. So I wrote him a nasty note and told him if I ever see him again I will shoot him with the World War II bazooka I recently purchased at our local Army Navy store for that sole purpose. Then I will drag what is left of him behind my Sherman tank until his head falls off and then ship his remains to Somalia. give him a piece of my mind. I know this may sound harsh but you might not think so if you saw Paco's house.

So now we are in Plumbing Hell, having decided to find the leak ourselves after getting Billy Ray the Millionaire Plumber’s quote to find and repair the leak. I told Paco I could quit my job if he would only change careers and go to plumber’s school. They obviously earn in the high six-figures and all drive solid gold Cadillacs and I added that I would be happy with just a newish Buick wagon. He said no, it isn’t worth it. I said it is. We tabled the discussion but I still think Plumber's Night School is worth investigating.

Next week, or whenever I can stand the thought of writing about this nightmare again, I will discuss all of the brand-new plumbing equipment (that keeps breaking) we recently purchased via mail order to fix the leak. Also the equipment we have rented, which has also systematically broken because the equipment rental people are obviously IN CAHOOTS with Billy Ray the Millionaire Plumber. I will also discuss all the money we are spending in order not to have to pay Billy Ray, who we understand is just back from his vacation home in the Bahamas.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


The remains of the day.

We have a new puppy, hence the long stretch between posts. This missive, by the way, doesn't contain any Earth-shaking tips on DIY except for a photo of the ingenious door that Paco devised to keep Henry (said puppy) from gaining access to the rest of the house without supervision. Even then, he is a very willful child and not easy to corral, which is why he has started Puppy Training classes as of last night. He and I went to learn together, Henry to learn how to sit, not bark or bite and to generally behave himself. I went to find out if this is even possible given his tenacious personality and penchant for drama.

The little propeller-type device swivels when you want to remove the barrier.
That doesn't happen very often.

First a brief background: we adopted Henry from a lovely, very kind-hearted couple east of here who suddenly found themselves the parents of 10 puppies. Sister K saw the listing on Facebook and alerted me since she knew I wanted to adopt. I say "I" because while Paco had given his blessing, this was still my endeavor and would be" The One Responsible" in terms of feeding, training and general stewardship. I was ready for the challenge; how hard could it be?
Eight weeks old and such an angel you've never seen.

I have heard it said that between having children women forget how painful childbirth is  because if they did remember they would never have more than one. This can also be applied to puppies (and kittens to a lesser extent). While there was no physical pain involved on my part when we adopted Henry, still and all I forgot how much effort (and reward) comes with the process. Soon after bringing him home I exchanged texts with a close friend (who has four dogs) about the havoc unfolding at our house. She suggested I watch "Marley and Me". I said "But wait, doesn't Marley die at the end of the movie?" and she texted back "Yes, but in terms of the chaos he creates as a puppy it may give you some comfort." I still can't get past the death part, though, so will have to watch "101 Dalmations" instead.

So back to our first training session. There were about 6 or 7 adorable puppies as well as their (mostly) frustrated parent(s). We were all handed special leashes and little clickers (which I still can't seem to operate). It was loud and distracting and difficult to hear Miss Patty, our instructor, over the din of barking. Henry's barking, to be specific. He was, in training parlance, "Over-stimulated". That was an understatement of epic proportion. Henry barked, jumped, bit and chewed, everything he does at home on a daily basis. Miss Patty turned to me and quietly asked "Does he always act like this?" and I answered (eyes staring at the floor) "Yes." Then she took his leash from me and promptly put him in Time Out. This was 5 minutes into the session and it was downhill from there. I apologized to the class for the disruption but everyone just nodded their heads knowingly as if to say "we feel your pain". Maybe so, but their puppies were not in Time Out. This is what it looked like...

Henry is on the other side of the door. Sob.


Class continued and things went swimmingly until Henry was allowed to rejoin the session. This lasted about 5 more minutes before he was back in The Joint, doing time for bad conduct. Needless to say, we missed most of the class, or rather he did. I was busy taking notes and trying to learn for both of us, my mission to work with Henry at home after his Over-Stimulated self had calmed down. Towards the end of class Miss Patty turned to me (with Henry still in T.O.) and asked if I could stay after class. Oh no, please Baby J., don't make me. I have dinner (and wine) waiting at home and I haven't been told to stay after class since second grade when I dropped a little purse mirror and the shards of glass drew blood across Miss Skelly's boney white leg (my horrid, sadistic teacher). I had no choice but to agree and waited dutifully until class ended and everyone had filed out (with their newly-mannered puppies in tow, leaving us to contemplate our fate).

Miss Patty (starring disapprovingly at both Henry and me): "This behavior simply won't do and will prevent me from teaching the class."

Me: (eyes once again staring at the ground) "I know, I'm so sorry. I had no idea he would be so unruly and disruptive."

Miss Patty:" If I don't see a big improvement by next time I will have to... (dramatic pause, during which I held my breath. I have never been kicked out of a Puppy Training class. How humiliating)...switch him to private lessons." She quickly followed this by saying there would be no extra charge (thank goodness; I was already over budget on my Puppy Project). I gave a sigh of relief and promised to work with Henry so that next week he was no longer creating havoc and chaos.

When we got home last night after class (20 minutes late), Paco and Chester (our yellow Tabby) were waiting for us on the front porch, wine at the ready. After explaining our plight Paco laughed so hard I thought he was going to fall off the steps. He said "I figured that was what happened. So I guess Henry acted out?" "Yes, to put it mildly", I said, "we have some work to do before next week" which was another epic understatement.

One thing to note, which I mentioned to Miss Patty as we were leaving class, was that I, too, was put into Time Out my first day of first grade for talking and general unruliness. Having not attended kindergarten and being the youngest (read spoiled ) child, I had no idea there were rules governing ones behavior. So perhaps this trait somehow found its way down to Henry (by osmosis?) and we share a common Thread of Unruliness". I think I understand Henry a bit better now after last night. Meanwhile, I have to go release him from Time Out.
Please stay tuned...

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


(This is a long post so you might want to top up your wine glass before continuing. Ed.)

A few weeks ago while exploring a local flea market recommended by sister K, I came across a pile of burlap grain sacks from the early 1940s. They had some interesting markings on them and apparently had been made in Belgium; the exact provenance was written on a little card next to the display but I have since forgotten what it was. For $24 a bag, however, I thought the material had some repurposing potential so I bought one with a vague idea of what I would do with it. As often happens,  this vague idea eventually took on a life of its own (sometimes I just sit back and watch it happen) and I knew what I would do with the sack. An ancient ottoman sitting in our store room for several years would be the perfect vehicle for repurposing my unusual find.

I was about to transform this pig's ear into a lovely silk burlap purse.

The origins of the ottoman are somewhat interesting, if slightly vague.  I remember it residing in my grandmother's house and that it matched a rather uncomfortable club chair with the same fabric. Somewhere in the intervening 50 years or so the chair went missing but amazingly the ottoman had survived, probably because I thought it had "potential" when I rescued it from our parent's attic. I have a lot of things like that lurking in my house and store room, just waiting for the moment when I realize what it is I am supposed to do with it; sort of a "Design Epiphany". After some digging I found it stashed on a back shelf and something about it jogged my memory. It had been years since I had actually seen it and suddenly I had a flashback to Mr. Easter...

Mr. Easter, or simply Mistereaster, lived in the same tiny central-Texas town where my late mother grew up. He was the official Town Upholsterer and had a booming business, needless to say, since it was him or no one. Just like summoning the Village Blacksmith if your horse threw a shoe or the Town Crier if the marauders where coming to steal your children, you called Mistereaster if you had a furniture problem. My grandmother was always calling him to swing by and collect a chair or sofa from one of her furnished rent houses and was by far one of his best customers. Giving him something to reupholster was one thing; having it returned or even finding it, was another.

Mistereaster was pretty good at upholstery but really awful at keeping track of his customer's property and, I suspect, possessed hoarding tendencies that went undiagnosed. It never failed that we would drive up to his shop looking for something, only to be told that "it isn't quite ready yet". It wasn't quite ready because no one could quite find it and hadn't seen it in weeks, months or sometimes years. Like the Katzenjammer's closet, every time he opened the huge doors to the storage room something would fall out, and not in a good way. A wall of furniture would threaten anyone standing within 10 feet of the opening and the kids were always told to "stay in the car!". Sometimes the piece was found, but sometimes not for weeks and a few times was never located at all. Things just simply got sucked up into the swirling vortex of Mistereaster's store room and then spewed out into a parallel universe. Or as my mother used to say, "It has entered The System", never to be seen again.

For some reason this didn't seem to stop anyone from continuing to call on Mistereaster for his upholstery services and the mismanagement and frustration continued on, literally, for decades. Eventually Mistereaster passed away and his son, Mistereasterjunior, inherited the business. Finally, missing furniture would be reunited with its owner (if they were even still alive)! Unfortunately, Mistereasterjunior had inherited his father's penchant for losing things and the vicious cycle simply continued. Occasionally, sometimes years later, my grandmother would receive a call saying her slip covers or somesuch were ready but by then they had been long-forgotten as was the chair itself. The last time I remember driving out to look for something MIA, a huge sofa came flying out of the barn and we ran for our lives, never to return.

This brings me back to the ottoman. While rather small and rickety it seemed to have potential and so I decided to channel Mistereaster and give it a go. That's when I discovered one of his secret upholstery tricks that probably went to the grave with him...
Somewhere in here is buried the news-of-the-day, circa 1934.

As I cut away the rotten fabric from the top of the ottoman I discovered shredded, yet neatly compressed, yellowed newspaper from the 1930s. No doubt this method was much cheaper than using batting exclusively during the Great Depression and my guess is Mistereaster had been doing this for years. I also discovered the origins of the frame itself, which was actually an old crate used to ship medical supplies from a company called G.K. Harvey Company, also circa 1930. It turned out I was in possession of a piece of history cobbled together from materials readily and cheaply available during tough economic times and repurposed by Mistereaster. Now, many years later I was doing the exact same thing: spending just a few dollars to restore my grandmother's ottoman using a seventy year-old grain sack found at a flea market. 
I loved this grain sack at first sight.
You know how some things just speak to you?
For all of the misplaced items and customers bereft of their family heirlooms, Mistereaster's efforts at recycling were certainly well-meaning. Looking at his handiwork and realizing what an amazing job he did at creating something out of virtually nothing, I found a new respect for his abilities. What's more, I think Mistereaster and I are a bit like the long-lost chair and its ottoman: one gone but not forgotten, the other striving to find new purpose amidst faded cloth and yellowed newspaper.

On second thought, maybe the chair is still sitting in his store room...

I hope Mistereaster would be proud of the finished piece.
At least it hasn't disappeared into "The System". At least not yet.


Monday, September 29, 2014


A few years ago I discovered "Sculpey", the polymer material that can be molded into just about any shape possible. Once formed, it's baked in the oven and then can be painted with acrylics. I love this stuff and went through one of my "creative surges" awhile back,  making all kinds of interesting things, mainly lamp finials. Naturally, I decided that I should share my creations with the outside world so I gathered up my samples and went looking for interested buyers.


Having made this swirly one I have a new appreciation for Mother Nature.
Mine doesn't do hers justice.
My first stop was a local home decor shop in our 'hood. It had very trendy store front windows with lots of cool furniture, table top accessories and clothing. This just looked right up my alley so after speaking with one of the owners I made an appointment to return and meet with all three of them, my samples ready to wow them.
Who doesn't like sand dollars? It even has real sand that
I brought back from St. Simon's Island.

After small talk and thinly-masked attempts to butter them up about how wonderful their shop was (it was wonderful so this part was easy) I launched into my sales pitch about my one-of-a-kind finials, how I make them and how the owners could corner the market on them. "No other store is carrying them, you will be the first / I will give you exclusive rights and make you a deal..." My audience was very polite but subdued and one of them drifted off to make a phone call. Finally, the Ring Leader spoke. "Shells are really out right now. We like them but we just don't do shells." (Shells are out, really? Who said so, Jacque Cousteau?) "Okay, no problem, these are only samples. You just tell me what is "IN" and I can create it. What about the pineapple? Fruit never goes out of style. I hear apples and pears are big sellers," I countered.
Pineapples are said to be a sign of hospitality.
The ladies could have used a dose of it. 

Finally, the Decision Maker fessed up. "Well, actually, we might be interested in carrying them here in the store if, urm, we are still in business in the fall. We sort of spent our entire marketing budget already and business is a little slow right now." Oh dear, I felt bad for them. I also thought they had no business doing what they were doing because clearly they were clueless about how to market themselves. It turned out they had been talked into spending lots of $$$ on "Advertorial" space with a local large-format newspaper that promised huge exposure to their store in exchange for a big fat check. This did include a big party at the store and a spread in the paper, but the publication is actually a freebie and can be found in most trendy cafes and your local hairdresser's. Having been in advertising and marketing my entire career, one of the biggest wastes of your ad dollars is on anything that is over-priced, under-exposed and free to the public. This kind of advertising isn't usually seen by them as having value. If you want to spend your money on a fancy, very expensive ad in, say, Architectural Digest at least somebody had to pay ten bucks for the magazine so they figure what's in it must be worth buying, right? The poor ladies at the store had failed to grasp this basic concept and I knew they were doomed.

Packing up my wares I wished them luck and said I would be in touch in the fall (if there wasn't a For Lease sign in the window in the meantime. I didn't say this part but we were all thinking it). Three months later, the lease sign was there and all the lovely furniture, do-dads and other designer swag was gone. I feel bad for them still, although not as bad as the people who have taken the space. Apparently they sell clothing to people who were born without, or don't care about, fashion sense (in my humble opinion). This is evidenced by the dress forms adorned with emerald green feather boas, 80's sequined halter tops and a full-size red light, which I assume is there to get passersby attention if the feather boa doesn't. Something tells me they wouldn't like my finials either.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Have Birdhouse, Will Travel

A couple of years ago Paco and I were asked to design and build a one-of-a-kind birdhouse for TRAC, aka Trinity River Audubon Center, for whom we volunteer. The project, in which 20+ local artists, bird enthusiasts and architects participated, was part of an annual fundraiser for the Center. As most non-profit events like this go, the object is first and foremost to raise awareness of the Center, which in turn (hopefully) attracts more members, underwriters and sponsors. Because education is one of the cornerstones of the Audubon Society nation-wide, naturally the more school-age kids we can "reach and teach" the better. All of this takes funding, of course, which brings me back to our birdhouse.
In just so happened that at the same time I had become obsessed fascinated with "Tear Drop Trailers", which, if you've ever heard of them, are tiny little trailers that are, yes, shaped like a tear drop. They are kind of thick and chunky, with a curvy roof and just enough room for you, your significant other and your cat. It isn't big enough to actually swing the cat, however, so please don't try. Here is a picture of one I found online:
As you can see, the Tear Drop is pretty tiny but just so darn cute. The back hatch opens up into a camp-style kitchen and bar  entertainment area.

You can actually buy a kit online and build it yourself, or just buy the plans and really do the heavy lifting. There are some vintage ones out there for sale in varying states of (mostly) disrepair. There are even a few companies that are making new-fangled ones with lots of ModCons, but we are purists. If we some day have a garage we would like to build our own and then take lots of road trips, just Paco, me and our cat Chester (the one too big to swing). With my recent discovery of Tear Drop Trailers, it only made sense to create a miniature Tear Drop Trailer birdhouse for the fundraiser.

If you are so inclined, and because this blog is all about creating and repurposing things you may have lying around your house and/or garage, below are a few photos taken at various stages of completion. Most of the materials we used were what we already had, such as the uber-heavy MDF board; the only thing we bought was an aluminum kickplate from the Depot, which Paco carefully cut down for the curvy roof. Oh, maybe a little paint, too, but most folks have some of that lying around and when it's a tiny little trailer you don't need much.
Step One: Make a pattern. This was easy as there were lots of plans online to choose from. This is the one I started with and then improvised:

It's just amazing what you can find on the Interline when you Do the Google.
Then I handed it off to Paco with a very loose set of instructions, such as wheels that actually turned and a curvy tin roof. Wasting no time, Paco disappeared into his workshop where he keeps the Man Tools and went to work. It wasn't long before he emerged with this:

This is the rough version of the birdhouse, complete with fenders and tires.
Now it was my turn to start painting. No pressure.
How does that man do it? In a matter of hours he had sawed, ripped and chiseled his way to create this masterpiece of engineering. I guess one explanation is that he IS an engineer so of course it would be perfect. Plus, he is creative, artistic and just so handy with those Man Tools.
Step Two: Paint. Get out your paint pots and put on your smock. Since I consider tomato red and bright yellow to be true retro colors naturally I chose them for the exterior of the trailer. Don't worry about scaring the birds away with bright colors as they actually are attracted to them. This is evidenced by their continued attacks on our homegrown tomatoes, whose bright red skin is like a shiny beacon daring the birds to swoop down and help themselves to our crop. Regardless, here is the finished product, painted and ready to be hitched to the star car of the highest bidder:

That's a Scissor-Tail Flycatcher adorning the name of our trailer-birdhouse.
It's all about the birds.

Vanity plates are a must-have.
Someone on my Facebook page left a comment asking if we were planning on vacationing soon in it (not realizing the actual tiny scale) and I commented to the effect that only after I had lost 100+lbs. I am flattered that it looked so authentic!

Fast forward to the night of the auction / fundraiser: the birdhouses were all sold that evening and taken home by their new owners. We have since created a more conventional birdhouse for a recent TRAC fundraiser and it, too, found a good home. We aren't sure how many more of these we will be asked to build as there are other, more exotic fundraisers on the cards (shameless teaser) but we are always ready to lend a hand.

Paco and I are blessed to have befriended so many like-minded folks ready to give their time and talents to support this very worthy cause. Non-profits can be the perfect place to give back and make a difference in someone's life. I bet there's one out there for you, waiting to be picked (just like our tomatoes).


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pearls in the Attic

Actually, there are no pearls in this post, but rather my grandmother’s hutch and it wasn't in the attic, but I really liked the sound of the title. Regardless, most of us have a piece of family furniture that can use a facelift or maybe you bought something at a flea market that looked like it had "possibilities". This was my grandmother’s dinning room hutch / breakfront / pearl and served as a catch-all for linen napkins, silverware and the obligatory plastic grapes prominently displayed in a sterling silver bowl. Take a look at the original piece:


Not a great photo but you get an idea of what the original hutch looked like.
The thing hanging from the red cord, btw, is a wooden cow bell I brought back from Thailand. Not sure what happened to the cow.

As you can see, the hutch was made of oak and stained a reddish-pecan color. It looked quite smart alongside her enormous dining table whose legs were the size of tree trunks. Somehow I ended up with it but was a bit dubious about the color or what to do with it. Not wanting to dispose of a family heirloom, however, I decided to re-purpose it. This, of course, involved lots of stripeze.

Unfortunately, I do not have step-by-step photos of the process but I can describe how I accomplished the end result and at least show you the finished product. Here is a list of materials you will need:

To Strip and Prep the Hutch:
  • Varnish stripper. Make sure you get the right kind as there are all sorts, depending on the material you are stripping
  • Safety glasses
  • An inexpensive paint brush that can be thrown away after use
  • 2 large glass jars, one to hold the stripping material and one for the varnish that you will scrape off of the wood surfaces. Do not use plastic because the stripper will eat the bottom of the container and strip anything below it you did not want stripped.
  • Acetone; after stripping the wood it’s a good idea to remove the residue to stop the process
  • Several old, clean rags to mop up any drips of stripper; be careful, this stuff is like battery acid. It will eat through anything so make sure you only put it where you really want it to be.
  • A pair of thick work gloves (not rubber). Stripper will peel the skin right off your hands just like a banana.
  • Paint scraper; plastic works best because it won't gouge the wood but make sure it's heavy-duty
  • Hand-sander or, if you don’t own one of these handy items, a sanding block.
  • Medium-, fine- and extra-fine grade sandpaper sheets

To Refinish the Hutch:
  • Watered-down white latex or chalk paint
  • Medium-quality paint brush
  • Rags to wipe off excess paint
  • Hand-made or store-bought stencil for drawer fronts and doors. I made mine from a pattern I found on the Interline but you can buy them at any hobby shop or hardware store like Home Depot or Lowe’s. Martha S. makes fancy ones, too.
  • Dust mask

Now, follow these easy step-by-step instructions and you will be amazed at what happens with enough wood stripper and elbow grease:
  • Set up your work space outside and make sure the area is well-ventilated. The garage is fine as long as you have a cross breeze. My arts and crafts teacher at camp once keeled over from inhaling casting resin fumes during a “Make Your Own Paperweight” demonstration and had to be revived with smelling salts. I wonder why we didn't keel over, too. Hmmm.
  • With your heavy work gloves protecting your precious skin and your protective glasses covering your peepers, carefully spread the wood stripper with the paint brush, working top to bottom to achieve a uniform effect. If you have any sawdust handy, sprinkle it all over the stripper. It will make it easier and cleaner to scrap off. After the stripper has soaked in and the varnish starts to get very gooey, carefully scrap the old varnish away from the wood using the paint scrapper. Put this material into the glass jar so it won’t end up on the bottom of your shoe. 

  • Continue this process until all of the varnish has been removed. Then take a clean cloth and soak it in acetone. Wipe all of the surfaces to remove any remaining stripper. Note: you can buy a product that will do this same thing but acetone works just as well and is cheaper.

  • Once you have removed all of the old varnish from your hutch and the acetone has evaporated it’s time to get out your hand sander or sanding block and get to work on the stain. The stripper will remove the varnish but not the old stain, so unless you just want to re-varnish the hutch, you will need to do some sanding. Put on your dust mask.

  • Starting with medium-grade sandpaper, sand all the surfaces of the hutch to remove as much of the old stain as possible. This is where a hand sander is really useful as it can get right down into the grain. With enough elbow grease, though, you can achieve similar results.

  • Once you have sanded the hutch with the medium-grade sandpaper switch to the fine grade and repeat the process. Finally, switch to the ultra-fine grade to achieve a smooth surface. You want to open up the pores of the wood grain so the paint wash can soak in. Think of this step as a facial for you hutch.

  • Now take your white latex paint wash and start applying it with the paint brush. Use a clean cloth to remove any excess paint, unless you want it to be a bit splotchy. This is where you can get jiggy with it and start freely expressing your inner messy child. You can see from the photo of the top of my hutch that I flung some thicker paint around to give it a sort-of feathery look. Be sure there is nothing nearby that would not also look good with paint flung over it.
    This is the top of the refinished hutch. It has a nice patina and the paint flings
    just give it a sort of artsy effect.

  • After the paint has dried (you should really leave it overnight with a fan blowing over the surface) get out your stencil and start getting really creative. I removed the drawers and hutch doors so I could work on them on a flat surface. I used acrylic paint and a small paint brush.
    I found some old tin pulls in a junk shop to replace the original wooden ones.
    I think they match the bohemian look of the “new” hutch and add a bit of interest.
    If you use the original pulls you can carefully dip them into the stripper
    and then use steel wool to remove the old varnish.
  • So now you have your stripped, painted and stenciled hutch and all you have to do is apply a coating of furniture wax. This will give it a nice patina without it looking shiny and plastic-y. It will also help restore some of the moisture to the hutch that has been removed by the stripper and acetone. I don’t ever use furniture polish on pieces like these as it can stain it and leave it with a greasy surface.
    As you can see, the bottom drawer isn't quite finished yet. There is a bit more work
    to be done on the drawer itself, which I am assured will take place soon...

There you have it. I hope these rather involved instructions make sense and you can re-purpose or re-imagine something that has otherwise been sitting in your attic while you were figuring out what to do with it. Of course, you can always just slap a coat of paint on it and call it a day but I hope you will try this technique instead. Once in a while we all need to think outside the hutch.



Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Walled Garden

A few months ago I was in the UK visiting family and friends and had the opportunity to visit my dear friends Frank and Sue who live in north Yorkshire. Their lovely stone cottage is just steps away from a picturesque little village with the requisite local pub, green grocer and other accoutrements we Americans associate with English country life. Their house has a much-coveted walled garden, within which are a huge assortment of shrubs, flowers, bees, birds and potted plants. We were extra-lucky with the weather during my visit and I was afforded some lovely day trips with my hosts to take in some of the local sites, among them Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden. I highly recommend a day trip there  although if I published Frank and Sue's address and suggested you look them up for accommodation that might not be a good idea. Suffice to say, they were gracious, generous hosts and we had a grand time catching up on what has been going on over the intervening past few years.

Without further adieu, I have included a few photos of my host's beautiful house, gardens and drive to give you a sense of the serenity and peace that abounds at Frank and Sue's Yorkshire oasis. I'm also including a photo of the painting I did for them as a thank you for the wonderful time I had with them. This can go under the heading "Unsolicited Advice" in terms of what to send as a thank you gift to your hosts.

The entrance to my host's lovely Yorkshire stone cottage through the walled garden.


The view I woke up to each morning. Sigh.

This is their Lady Bug house (notice the teensy holes). It can also be home to other small insects that eat bad ones lurking in your garden. I need one of these as we have a lot of lurkers.

I love their driveway leading up to the house. The gate is usually left open and the path is especially inviting when the shrubs and flowers are in bloom.

This is their garden gate, which was the subject of the painting I did as a Thank You gift for my gracious hosts Frank and Sue.

This is my interpretation of the gate. Normally I would have cropped the photo to eliminate
the tile countertop in my kitchen. I just painted the front hallway floor, however, and can not access my office computer containing Photoshop. The floor is the subject of a future post, btw. 
The floor dried (sort of) and I was able to crop this.

You don't have to be a painter or have any artistic ability to create something to commemorate your visit, though. Save a few flowers from your host's garden, or snap a photo of their house, and frame it for them to remember you by. Be sure to enclose a simple, yet heart-felt little note of thanks as well (yes, I am channeling my late mother here when it comes to etiquette).

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


When I was about 10 years old I decided to build a go-kart. Not the fancy kind with a motor and roll bar but more like a Soapbox Derby version. Unfortunately, the end result, while it looked pretty cool, had no brakes or steering mechanism. The wheels came from an old baby buggy and the axels were curtain rods from our kitchen. An old cone-shaped fruit basket became the hood and I was ready for my first test drive. As usual, undeterred by its utter lack of safety devices or adult supervision, I ferried it across the street from our house to the steepest driveway on our block. Predictably, barely halfway down the hill the axels collapsed, as did the flimsy wheels. Like a 747 making an emergency landing minus nose gear, the kart, and me, skidded down the driveway, sparks flying, until we swerved violently off into the gravel and came to a painful stop. Unhurt and undeterred, I quickly turned my attention to my next project, which was building a secret clubhouse in our backyard.

I mention this story to illustrate my point that anyone can re-do a room, re-purpose a piece of furniture or rejuvenate an outdoor space. Obviously my attempts at building a go-kart ended disastrously but I didn’t treat it as the massive structural failure it was but rather as a learning experience. Creating and designing a new space, or just taking what you have and giving it a new lease on life can be incredibly rewarding no matter what your skill level or experience. You don’t have to be Martha Stewart or Sister Parrish to makeover your bedroom or kitchen and you don’t have to spend a fortune doing it. Sometimes I start a project only to stop halfway through and completely change direction. Dream big but start small to keep from feeling overwhelmed and don’t be afraid to make mistakes (think curtain rod axels and no brakes).

Here are few easy ways to fix common problems in your kitchen. Or at least they're common in my 84 year old one. Please feel free to share your tips in the comments section below.

Everytime we opened the fridge door the handle crashed into the little shelf that holds my cherished copy of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking". The last thing we needed was a big dent in our fancy new icebox.


Having several large containers with wine corks (we entertain alot...) I just grabbed a couple and screwed them into the ledge right at the point of contact with the fridge handle. Problem solved!

This photo doesn't do justice to the rather sad shape our dishwasher was in, at least cosmetically-speaking. While I was lamenting it's appearance and wondering how much a new one would cost, Paco (my wonderful, handsome and oh-so-practical spouse) made a simple suggestion...


...simply take out the removable color panels in the door (top and small one at the bottom) and flip them from white to black side. The black side is so much easier to keep clean and blends in with my navy blue cabinets now. Who knew? I didn't.

So here are a couple of little tricks to give your dull, lifeless kitchen a quick lift and also save wear and tear on your new appliances (the ones you can now afford because you didn't have to buy a new dishwasher).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

KP DUTY part two

Returning to my recent kitchen makeover, I thought in lieu of my posting ad naseum about what we did and how, I would just upload a few more photos. The little descriptions underneath them should help explain (or disclaim perhaps) the transformation. I will just add one more thing: a lot of what you see I already owned; it may have been in storage, used for some other purpose or quite possibly rescued from someone's curb. We are talking charm and cozyness here, not big money.

I love lamps in kitchens and I really love this one.
I bought it at Home Goods. The copper wine holder used to be a planter.
I think I bought it at an antique mall for $5. Note: the wine cost less than the planter.
Yes, we drink cheap wine.


These items sit on the shelf over Command Central. Someone gave us the pickled lemons and garlic as a hostess gift. The sterling silver flask came from a friend's estate sale. The flask is from Augusta National and has a dent in it. Someone forgot it was in their pocket I guess. The pommegranate jelly is from our own trees. It won a prize last fall at the state fair and is yummy. The sterling silver jigger is Peruvian which I bought at an estate sale for $5. Everything seems to cost $5 in this post.

I also bought this wonderful little rug at Home Goods, which I think is owned by TJ Maxx. It matches perfectly with the walnut laminate flooring we laid (from Lumber Liquidators). This is a huge improvement over the blue and white linoleum (see previous post). I do need to buy a pad for it. Or bump up the "Slip and Fall" rider on our homeowners insurance, whichever is cheaper. Oh, I just noticed someone left a small sponge on the drain board just before the photo shoot. And there's something sitting in the sink. How embarrassing.
You might have noticed in a couple of these photos that there are some missing ceramic tiles on the countertops. The originals were cracked and we removed them, carefully matching the new tiles to the old ones. They have not been installed yet because it was way down on the Punch List. The list is dwindling, however, and it is now almost at the top. I have been assured this will be off said list by this coming weekend. Please return in a few days to check its status; I can't guarantee anything but am ever-hopeful.