Thursday, December 21, 2006

A new throne

Reading this entry from "Building a Better Crackhouse" reminded me that I have yet to blog about the newest addition to our upstairs "WC suite" (I think that's British for bathroom.)

When we re-did the plumbing in the house, we discovered that the old toilet leaked. But, because the water pressure upstairs had been so bad, we had never noticed it, since it amounted to about a drop of water a week or so. With our new "water-pressure-that-could-wash-an-elephant," the toilet leak morphed into quite a spray. And, although we probably could have fixed the leak, it also gave us an excuse to go shopping for a new toilet. Who could pass that up?

For those of you who have not shopped for a toilet in the 21st century, you may not be aware of the array of choices out there. I wasn't. In fact, I was imagining the transaction would go something like this:

Us: "Hi. We need a new toilet."

Evil Big Box Retail Clerk: "OK, what color do you want, white or cream?"
(note-it's the Big Box store, not the clerk that is evil... as we have found many of their clerks to be quite pleasant.)

Us: "Uh, white. Yeah, white will go with whatever we decide to do up there."

Evil Big Box Retail Clerk: "OK, pick one up down that aisle and we'll ring you up."

Ok, I knew we could pick a design that was most asthetically appealing to us, but we also found that we needed to decide on the toilet height, a flushing capacity, a round or elongated bowl, a flap mechanism....blahblahblah, and the colors come in a range much bigger than white or cream (although for a price).

So we spent a couple hours wandering up and down the toilet aisle of the Evil Big Box store, reading the tags on the "floor-models" and wondering if this was a decision we could make on such a spur-of-the-moment.
You can picture it, I'm sure:

Me: "Oooo, honey- look at that cool green-ish one, with the sink to match and everything. No, never-mind. It's (in CAPITAL NUMERS) $700. *Gasp*. Can a toilet cost that much? Seriously."

Sean: "How about these down here. They are a little more reasonable."

Me: "Ok. American Standard. That's a good brand. And this flushing capacity number is bigger than that one. Isn't that a good thing?"

Sean: "Yeah. And that sort of looks like our style."

(Repeat several times....)

Eventually, it was the pocketbook that did most of the decision-making for us. Even so, we are ecstatic with the product. In the past twenty or thirty years (which is how old we figured the old one was) toilets have come a long way, baby. Throw out those plungers and bring on the reading material 'cuz this is one comfy throne. You'll have to take a look the next time you come over. :)

In case anyone is keeping track:
We got a white "right-height" 34" tall toilet, with an elongated bowl. Which, apparently- for reasons still not quite understood by this female- is the shape of choice for most men's toilet needs.

Once we got it home, we had to install it, of course. But I've found that other writers have already covered that subject pretty well. So, I'll leave you with:
How to install a new toilet, from the Granades, by way of Jeannie at House in Progress.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Cool Ways to Heat Old Houses

An article worth tucking away for the day when we might need to think about a new boiler...
Cool Ways to Heat Old Houses. From This Old House Journal.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

WARNING: This can be addicting.

So don't say I didn't warn you.
Some might say I have developed an addiction for architechtural salvage. Others might call it an obsession. Personally, I can't think of many better ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Looking for architechtural salvage pieces is like going to thrift stores- There's a little of everything, including the kitchen sink (literally). You can find a single piece that inspires a whole room, or bring home a whole room's worth of flooring.
It's environmentally friendly. It has history. And some of it is a GREAT deal.

I'll admit, I was a little overwhelmed the first time I stepped into the world of salvage. So, here's my skinny on how to do it well:

1) Make a list of materials that would be useful/ necessary in your current or upcoming projects.
I've seen chandeliers, filigreed door knobs, kitchen cabinets, bathroom fixtures, ceramic tile, bricks, pillars, flooring, windows, door moldings, and dozens of doors in all shapes and sizes. I'm an architechtural history buff, so some of the stuff is just cool to look at. Some salvage warehouses resemble junk yards with broken windows and rust-stained sinks piled in untidy heaps. Others are more like museums with artful displays of architectural treasures. If you have an idea of what you might want to bring home, you're less likely to be overwhelmed by the selection of items.

2) Dress to get dirty.
Most salvage places I've been to are not exceptionally clean. Many resemble construction warehouses, so dress appropriately. In the winter, they can be COLD and I really like my gloves!

3) Take measurements or floor plans with you. Oh yeah, and a tape measure.
You have no idea what you will find. And when you find it, you'll have no idea if it will fit if you don't have measurements with you. They may have a tape you can borrow, but it's easier to bring your own. If you are trying to match something, take it with you- even if it's just a sample.

4) Be flexible in your measurements and plans, if you can.
I know you can't just wave a wand and make a room bigger (but wouldn't that be a neat trick?)
But, if you have flexibility, you are much more likely to be able to use that perfect piece that's only about foot shorter than you were envisioning.

5) Take a digital camera with you.
Don't be shy about taking pictures. You may not bring the perfect piece home with you today. But you might want to look at it again- while you are standing in the room you are working on. Pictures make it easier to compare options as well.

6) Take notes.
If you find the perfect piece, write down the measurements- and anything else you notice while looking it over, including the price. Then, when you get home, you have all the information you need to share with fellow decision-makers.

7) Ask the workers for assistance.
Many know their items very well. Some may even know the story behind what you are looking at. (Which can be a very cool conversation piece when it's in your living room!)

8) Be prepared to take some time to look around.
This usually isn't a quick in-and-out endeavor, so don't go when you are on a tight schedule.

9) Bargain!
Warehouses run by demolition contractors often have overstocks of lavatory sinks and other common items. Go ahead and make an offer!

10) Some salvage centers do not operate 9 to 5 hours. Always call before making the trip.

11) Take a big truck.

If you find something you absolutely have to have, you should take it with you. Most salvage places are first-come, first-served. Some may hold a piece for 24 hours if it is paid for, but you may want to take it then and there.
OR, on the other hand, if you want to make sure that all you do is look, take the smallest vehicle possible. Better yet, ride a bike with no basket.

12) Be prepared to come up empty.
I don't find the perfect piece for the perfect price every time I look for salvage. I'm fortunate enough to live in an area with a lot of salvage choices nearby, so I can check often. Items at salvage locations change all the time. Keep looking, and you're more likely to find what you are looking for.

How to find salvage building materials:

  1. Search online directories for Architectural Salvage in your area- see my list below.
  2. Check the yellow pages of your local telephone directory for Building Materials - Used, or Salvage and Surplus. In the Twin Cities area, my favorite salvage places are here.
  3. Phone Demolition Contractors. Ask where they take their salvaged building materials.
  4. Contact your local historic preservation society. Ask about salvagers who specialize in antique building parts. Some historical societies operate nonprofit salvage warehouses and other services for old-house restoration themselves.
  5. Use the Internet. View photographs and inquire about shipping costs.
  6. Take advantage of online messsage boards and forums for buying, selling and trading.
  7. Keep an eye on garage sales, estate sales and auctions.
Online Salvage Sites:

Architectural Parts Warehouse
You don't have to live in the northeastern USA... You can shop for architectural parts online.
Architectural Salvage, Inc.
Buys, sells, and trades old house parts in New Hampshire, one hour north of Boston. Web site includes catalog of offerings.
Architectural Salvage Warehouse
Buys and sells salvage rights to old buildings. Mantels, doors, windows, hardware, plumbing, and more. Warehouse in Vermont.
Beyond Waste
Buys and sells used building parts, and manufactures flooring, wainscotting, and baseboard from reclaimed lumber. Santa Rosa, California.
Chicago Antique Brick
Original antique Chicago bricks, shipped via truck or rail.
D. Litchfield Demolition
Offers demolition, used building materials, and recycling ideas. Salvage yard and antiquities shop in the Vancouver, British Columbia area.
Historic House Parts
Online store selling architectural salvage and vintage and reproduction building parts. Plumbing fixtures, mantels, lighting, radiators, doors, windows, hardware, and more. Based in Rochester, NY.
Olde Good Things
Original hardware and doorknobs, mantels, doors, iron, lighting, bronze, brass, columns, corbels, stones, stained glass and more. Warehouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Recycler's Exchange
An information exchange for anyone who would like to buy, sell, or trade materials or equipment. Some lumber and building materials are listed.
Whole House Building Supply
California contractor Paul Gardner holds house demolition sales. View photos on the Web, visit the warehouse in Palo Alto, CA, or bring your own tools and take apart buildings scheduled for demolition

Site list from Jackie Craven at

Friday, December 15, 2006

Bath, Shath, Sh-Bath, SHOWER!!!!!!!!!!!!

Since we moved, we have had only a bathtub. A beautiful original iron clawfoot tub. With only a hand-held shower head attached to the tub faucet. (Note to friends: I don't count that tiny shower stall in the basement that makes me claustraphobic.)
So, I have gotten used to taking baths... or shaths (standing up in the bathtub, using the handheld shower and trying not to spray all over the room), or even sh-baths (letting the bathtub fill as for a bath, but using the handheld shower to rinse-- not to be confused with "shabbat", which is the Jewish sabbath). Yes, this is the language we have developed to descibe our daily cleansing routines.

In the "olden days," people just took baths- showers didn't really exist.
But nowadays, baths seem like such a luxury item to me. Namely because they take up so much of another luxury item: time. Now, I'm not complaining that I have been forced to light some candles, put some bubbles in the tub, and just relax- it is, no doubt, good for me and my psyche.

But really, there are times when a bath is simply not convenient. Like when you have finished sanding the drywall seams on the ceiling and you just want to get it all out of your hair. Or when you are running late to work and you realize that you aren't as, well, "spring-fresh" as you would like to be.

Then, there is nothing better than a nice, hot shower. A REAL shower. One where you can let the hot water run all over you and NOT have to hold a spigot in place, or worry about the damage all the spray will cause the walls.

Well, I'm happy to announce that this showering phenomenon is now made possible in our house by ... (drumroll, please)... the addition of the fabulous, miraculous shower riser, shower rod surround, and not one, but TWO shower curtains! (whew!)

Whoever knew that these contraptions were such a pain to install?
Probably my first mistake: I tackled the project myself.
Stay tuned to the next post for that adventure....

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Love in concrete...

Awww.... yes, in the midst of all the debris and chaos, we're still madly in love. When he covered the old floor drain, Sean made our mark- the first of its kind- in our new home together. We've found all sorts of marks and memories from the families who have lived here in the past, and it's kind of cool to think about someone finding memories of us here someday in the future. (Hopefully we'll keep the house standing until then!)
Sean also did the doggie's paw prints, which I also found super-cute. Don't ask me how he got the cement off their paws.... :)

Monday, December 11, 2006

a BIG hole in the house!!

We now have a big hole in the basement!! We also have a 3-ft-deep whole in the yard!! Why am I so excited about big holes in the property? It's one step closer to having the egress window!! For the record, the hole in the house is 36" by 50," and we cut through an 18.5" thick 100-year-old limestone foundation. The tool of choice was a jackhammer, since the concrete saws available for rental would only cut 5" deep.
Sean used the jackhammer to loosen chunks, and then we hammered them out and away.
Surprisingly, this only took a couple of hours. The bad news, though, is the cut was not as clean as we had hoped. So, Sean is going to try his hand at a little masonry today, pouring concrete to smooth out and even the frame so we have something to screw the window framing into.
Here's some great how-to information for anyone who is thinking about installing an egress window themselves:
How to install the window well
How to install the egress window
(This was the best information I found on the topic!)

Even though it feels like the finished product is still a long way off, we are making progress.

Friday, December 08, 2006

How to SAVE on your remodel/ restoration

Everyone's got a list these days. Here's mine:
Ways we found to save on some of our remodel projects so far:

1) Salvage, salvage, salvage. Got a yellow pages? Try for your area. Search for "architechtural salvage" or "building material" to find places near you that salvage. Or try the web- many salvage places have decent websites.
I could write a whole entry on how to salvage (and maybe I will), but here's a note for beginners: Be flexible in your plans. Sometimes you'll need to alter them, depending on what you find. Finding good value in salvage can take time and be hit-or-miss... be prepared to hunt, to find some items that are WAY over-priced, to bargain, and to come up empty sometimes. But the real bargains you find make it worth it. My favorite salvage places are here.

Biggest bargain so far: Solid 5-panel door with hardware: $17.77
Close second: Solid crystal door knob (and hardware) to match the others in the house: $10

2) Got an IKEA near you?Check out their "as-is" section for items 50% off or more. It changes all the time. Call ahead or ask the staff when they will be changing displays, especially for kitchens. Everything in their displays goes to their "as-is" section, as do many returns. They are a good source for materials, as their "odds and ends" go to the "handyman's corner" at rock-bottom prices. Wednesdays are good days to check.

Other places to check for bargains:
Room and Board weekend outlet- tabletops and countertops, hardwood to use for material
Menard's clearance section- every department has their own, and you have to look for it
A "Building Surplus" outlet- we have several in the Twin Cities- look in the yellow pages or ask
around to find one near you.

Biggest bargain so far: 8 ft. of countertop for $26.00
Close second: A hardwired four-light fixture: $1 (a return with no box).

If you haven't checked out yet, it's time. It's a free listing service for just about anything. I haven't hired anyone from craigslist, but I have found great bargains from real people who just need to get rid of stuff. The listings change daily (obviously) and you sometimes have to act fast, or the good stuff is gone- especially in the "free" section. People often list "free" odds and ends of building material, or list leftovers very cheaply. I have also found good listings for appliances and cabinets. It's also good for getting rid of YOUR stuff!

I got a 2-yr old Kenmore portable dishwasher that had barely been used for $150. We also are looking for gas stoves and have seen several newer models for $150 or less! That's 1/4 of the price for something new.

4) Trade skills.
What do you know how to do well? Find friends who have other skills and trade them. Don't think you have any valuable skills? Learn one! Take a community education class or attend aworkshops at Home Depot, then practice at home. But pick something you think you'll like- this is what you'll be doing for others. There are many skills that you can gain that will save you a bundle: Painting, wallpaper, drywall, basic plumbing... even demolition work, cleaning, organizing, and yard/garden work can be good trades!
NOTE: When you trade work, it's helpful to talk about exactly what each person will (and won't) do as a part of the bargain, and also what you will do if something goes wrong. You want to keep your friends, after all.

We rely on skills of family and friends, and they rely on us. We've established a good "bartering" network that has probably saved us thousands.

5) Do the work you know how to do yourself- and then hire out only the pieces you don't know how to do.
Things like demolition and finishing work are time consuming, and they take more elbow-grease than skill. If you can tackle a demo or do the final painting, you will save. You can also save by doing the shopping yourself and having all the materials on hand. Good contractors will work with you on this.

We helped our house painter paint the trim and siding that was within reach on a 6-ft. ladder. He did all the work up high (3-story house) and all the difficult scraping, but we saved a lot of time by helping with what we could reach on our own time.

6) Get at least 4 estimates on contracted work.
Yes, it takes time to get estimates. But it also can save you in the long run. Do your homework so you know exactly what needs to be done, and also what doesn't. Ask for an itemized bid with costs broken down, so you can compare apples to apples. Ask each person how they will do the work, and listen closely.

Bids for our new roof varied by as much as $8,000. Tree work bids varied by almost $500. Bids for new windows varied by $5000. We didn't necessarily take the lowest bid on every job, but we saved a ton by having several good choices.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Basement Kitchen Floor w. Platon

Although the p.o. said there were no problems with water in the basement (of course), we found puddles in the basement kitchen after heavy summer rains. So, we knew that we needed to solve that problem before we rented it out. When we tore up the old vinyl floor, we discovered an old floor drain that hadn't been sealed up. Could this be the cause of our water? Since most of the pools happened right around the drain, we think it's a good possibility. We closed that up with cement, and then we chose to subfloor with Platon subflooring.
* NOTE: It's WAY cheaper than "Dri-core"! *

With the newly covered drain, a subfloor, and a good dehumidifier, we hope that any water issues are taken care of!

Man, was it ever fun to level a 100-year old basement floor slab! (sigh).

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Master Bedroom Before and After


and After...

Friday, December 01, 2006

Dining Room Before and After

The Dining Room needed work. Ok, it still needs work. At some point in the past, the bathtub (located over the dining room) overflowed and wrecked the plaster ceiling. Rather than fix the plaster properly, the previous owners put up a "dropped ceiling" a'la 1970. Sean and I decided that taking that ugly ting down one of our first priorities before we had furniture in the house, since it was likely a very messy proposition.
Since then, Sean has put up new drywall and I have prepped it for tin-ceiling-like wallpaper. I can't wait to check out the copper-brass paint that we got for it! Any tips on hanging wallpaper on a ceiling, anyone??