The Hundred Dollar Shelf

29 Aug

Last weekend I tackled our coat closet.  It was a hot mess: broken shelving, spackle, and straight up holes.

This was a particularly maddening redo because I had already redone it once.

This closet (like all of ours) came to us with one shelf and rod in white wire shelving.  Standard.

When I redesigned it, I wanted to maximize storage space: shelves in the nooks for shoes and a double-hang rod for our short coats.  Not knowing any better, I used the same white wire shelving that the contractors had used.  If it was good enough for them, surely it was good enough for me!

Three weeks ago, we threw an enormous house party.  About an hour before folks were to arrive, we heard a tremendous crash and looked in the closet to discover that the shelf-and-rod had come down.  There was nothing to do about it so we piled everyone’s coats in the corner and pretended it hadn’t happened.

After I sobered up and got the chance to assess the damage, I was hurt but not that hurt.  It was something I’d made, and it had broken, sure, but it hadn’t ripped out of the wall — I did that much right.  The plastic shelf clips on the wall broke, pitching the shelf forward, and the brackets  just … folded.  You can see the mangled remains of one in the picture above.  I think I had already started patching the drywall at that point.

Basically, I got suckered by Closetmaid advertising.  They said it was easy, and I was scared, so I picked the “easy to install” system.  First mistake!  It’s a cheap piece of shit.  Or, considering I paid $200ish for it the system, an expensive piece of shit.

I had a horrible time installing the wire closet.  The anchor clips had to be pounded in with a wrench wedged in there, since I couldn’t get to the pins with my hammer.  It was sweaty miserable work.  Not to mention, many of the shelves the worker cut for me didn’t fit in my closet! I ended up giving away probably a third of them, and the hardware I bought for them.

At the time I didn’t know how to use wood. Now I feel better about it.

When I went to redo it, my heart was set on plumbing pipe.  Like this:


Or this:


What could be sturdier, right?

It seemed easy, but I ended up sweating this design a lot.  It’s indestructible if you can support the pipes on the ground, as in the first example.  But my boyfriend and I wanted to be able to put large boxes above and below.  This meant no obstruction on the ground and none on the ceiling — I couldn’t even hang it from the ceiling studs.  So this meant a design more like Daniel’s (second example), with a separate bar for hanging.  Pipe shelving like this wouldn’t fold like the brackets, but I was sacrificing the best part of the mechanical support pipes could offer.  It would all hinge on a first-class anchor job.

I’d already shredded the closet, so first I set to repairing it.  This was tedious.  There were so many holes, and such big holes, I had to go to Home Depot in the middle to buy more spackle.

I spent the first of my birthday money on a mechanical sander, knowing that I could not possibly face this task without it.  After the putty dried overnight (some spots took two applications) I sanded the spots until they were flush.  DO wear a mask for this, and goggles if you have them.  No joke!  I haven’t been covered in dust like that since Burning Man.

Then I painted — four coats (!) of a sunny tangerine.


These must be finished photos, because I see the white paint I bought to touch up our trim.  It’s minor, but it makes a difference.  It also means I don’t fight with my boyfriend who super helpfully offered to help me cut in, but got tangerine ALL OVER the trim.  Domestic harmony is totally worth $12.

The color looks great even at night in person, but I’ll have to try to photograph it in daylight — it’s fun, cheerful, and juicy.  I love it!  I’ve already started painting the laundry room door in it.

Next, I stained the wood for the shelf support and shelf.


Bottom: stained wood with the Minwax “Ebony” stain I used.  Top: the raw pine.


See how different it looks?


And with a little stain: it’s sexytime.  What a difference!  I did not bother polyurethaning it after staining because seriously, it’s going to be a closet shelf!

This was my first time staining anything and I will definitely do it again.

The pipe business could double as a sobriety test.  The first night I tried and failed to put them together — then succeeded no problem the next morning.  The same thing happened after a glass of wine the second night.  By the third day I had put things together and realized what the problem was.  Look, I’d never drink and operate power tools, but some home improvement tasks benefit from a beer or two (painting, anyone?).  Anyway … maybe try this well rested.

Next time I would assemble the whole business on the floor and then put it on the wall.  But I am so used to doing things alone I thought it would be best to do it bit by bit on the wall.

First I found the studs in the wall.  I held up my shelf support and decided where I’d place my screws/anchors.  I took it down, pre-drilled holes for the screws in the wood, and held it back up with a level to mark where they’d go on the wall.  Then it came back down to install two drywall anchors.  Then it went back up so I could screw into the drywall anchors, and put all-in-one anchors into the two metal studs.

Next I pre-drilled holes in the back of the shelf, and used 2″ wood screws to attach it to the 1×3 about every six inches.  When I let it go, it looked pretty solid.

I had to enlist my boyfriend for the last bit.  He lifted up the pipe support and held it in place, pressing up a smidge, while I marked the holes in the flanges under the shelf and on the wall.

While he went back to his movie, I set several snap toggle anchors on the wall, and pre-drilled the holes under the shelf, being careful to support it.  Then I summoned him one last time and in a very tense minute, screwed the bolts into the toggle anchors on each side and then the screws into the shelf above.  I may have said a brief prayer and then we let things go.

“Can I do pull-ups on it?” the Boy asked.

“NO!” I said. “Or next time I will install it into you!”

Pull ups notwithstanding, it feels solid.  I think.  Oh God I hope.  I’m going to buy a few more self-drilling drywall anchors for the wall flanges, and maybe for the shelf support, and I guess I could put a few more screws in it, but … I don’t know, I would be amazed if it came off.

All I have to do is scrape off the stickers and sponge down my pipes for grease (I was too impatient to do it before assembly, whoops?) and I have the rockin’-est industrial closet rack ever.



Shelf round up:

THREE trips to Home Depot.

Things purchased I barely used, so I’m not counting in the shelf price:

Minwax Stain: 7.77

231 piece screw assortment pack (for the eight 1/2″ screws that fastened flange to shelf): 6.50

The rest of it:

6 heavy duty strap toggles: 7.96

6 all purpose self drilling anchors: 1.96 (should have bought two, sigh)

Total pipe: 59.16

1×12 8 ft board: 15.58 (used half, so 7.79)

1×3 8 ft board: 4.37 (used half, so 2.20)

Total: 79.07

Without substitutions, the whole thing came to $103-something, thus the post title: the hundred dollar shelf.  But you know what?  Totally beats a $200 Closetmaid shelf.  Even if you have metal studs like me, you could save by using sheet metal screws instead of the strap toggles, but I have stripped a lot of sheet metal screws in my metal studs and after watching the TV guys mount my flat-screen with these puppies, I am a believer.

Oh and the paint was $25 for a gallon, and I had to buy a $15 brush set, and a $7 container of spackle, and a $50 sander … but at some point I have to start thinking of DIY in terms of the movies I’m not seeing and drinks I’m not buying.

It looks so badass, I’m sad that it is in my closet.

I have enough board left to make four crosswise shoe/storage shelves in the side nooks you can’t see.  I also have one four-foot piece left over from when I was considering hanging two main shelves instead of one.   I have grand shoe rack and hat cubby plans, of course, but I’m going to wait on all those until we’ve lived with this for a while.  I couldn’t bear to rip anything else out of this closet … not, at least, for another year.



bathroom redo

24 Aug

Our bathrooms were ugly.  Most everything except the bones of our apartment is ugly.  It’s builder basic, as the Internet calls it, with a side of cheap and a sprinkling of inexplicable.  Why our light fixture thingamajig?  The lights were cheap and melted themselves so that the glass falls out of the plastic and smells of burning.  There’s this weird dust-collector ledge for our lights even though we have eight foot ceilings.  The wood is fake maple, with plastic-y polyurethane — at least I assume it’s polyurethane.  I think it’s not maple because I can put a dent in it by looking at it wrong.  Same cabinets as our kitchen, where they’ve been stained fake cherry (and this is the most egregious part, because I was raised by a woodworker who loved, loved real cherry) with a slightly less shiny I-assume-it’s-also-polyurethane.  But no less ugly.

I figured the guest bathroom, being infrequently used, was the perfect place to learn.  It’s the first room I painted in this house, and certainly in a long time.

I resolved to paint the vanity with spray paint after seeing it cooed over on so many DIY design blogs. Perfect coverage! So easy! No brushstrokes!  These people are not using it inside.  Or maybe they are crazy.  More on that in a bit.

As much for my reference as yours, here’s how to paint a room the right way:

1. Remove everything from the room that’s not nailed down.  Belongings, furniture, everything.

2. Time for the stuff that’s nailed down!  Remove all light switch covers, grates, and hardware you’re not painting.  Set aside, preferably in little plastic baggies.  If you can lose a screw, you will.

I had my heart set on ripping down the ugly light fixture and its god-awful molding above the mirror.  From what I could tell it was screwed into the wall and I saw caulk on at least one side.  I didn’t have a utility knife, so I took a steak knife and sort of prodded at the caulk until I was satisfied it was perforated.  Then I pried out each of the screws, which spun in place when I used the electric drill (I later learned they were toggle bolts) and had to be twisted out with pliers.  The trick with toggle bolts is to maintain pull while you turn them; the bolt can come out, and the toggle falls into the wall. I was so proud when I pulled it down!

The towel bars were no treat either.  They were attached with enormous drywall anchors — like a screw with metal wings halfway.  (Also toggle bolts.)  Thankfully, half of these had never opened and I was able to pop them back out with wings closed.  When I was done, there were twelve huge holes in the wall, plus the shredded drywall where the vanity light had been, plus the gaping hole (at least three inches) I discovered the contractors had hidden behind it.

Four thin coats of spackle set me back a whole day.  I’d wanted to pull off a magic afternoon bathroom transformation, but instead the Boyfriend came home to find the bathroom swathed in rolls of plastic like I was planning to commit a murder, Dexter-style.

Whoops. I know better now, so I’m going to chalk this up to learning, too.  You can’t sneak-renovate (at least until you’re very, very good).  It will take ten times as long as you think and three times the money and really, you can use all the commiseration you can get.

After your last coat of spackle dries, sand it smooth.  Vacuum all the dust and wipe your baseboards with a damp cloth so your painter’s tape will stick. I know, this seems stupidly finicky … but ask me how I know.

3. Tape!  Tape everything.  I tape the ceiling, although I think some people do not.  2″ should keep your roller from bumping.  It doesn’t hurt to have paint that matches the ceiling and trim for touch-ups.

4. Edge. My $10 “Paint Kit” at Home Depot included rollers and a bristle brush, so that is what I used.  I destroyed my brush, which was the cheapest thing ever to be called a brush.  It looks fine, as long as you don’t look for brushmarks in the corners.  Whatever …

5. Paint! Rollers are your friend.

6. Let dry completely. Try not to stress about the mess.

7. Remove painter’s tape, reinstall any hardware you’re keeping, scrub the paint off the floor, enjoy.

It’s been months and there is still spray paint residue on the tile.  I’m pretty sure there will be forever.  At least I don’t see it anymore, and the Boy hasn’t said anything.  Most of the overspray that filtered onto everything else (toilet, shower, MY LUNGS) has taken care of itself through many cleanings, except maybe the spray in my lungs which will be found on my autopsy.  Repeat: IT IS NOT WORTH SPRAYING PAINT INSIDE, SERIOUSLY IT’S NOT.  Everything smelled like death and chemicals and we didn’t sleep well for a week.

Well, now I know.

I should rename this blog “well, now I know”.

refinishing is harder than calculus

24 Aug

I tried to paint the drawers with oil paint.

I can’t believe I didn’t take pictures of this process, because I felt as though I were witnessing proof that God did not want me to have black shiny drawers.

First, I got fibers from the roller.  I bought the best one at Home Depot and I have never, ever had this problem before.  I was able to sand them out with 120 grit sandpaper.  The Internet says apparently you can de-fiber your roller by wrapping it with tape.  I still think it can’t be 100% effective, so if it’s a problem at all, I should try another method.

On the second coat, I got DUST.  That’s right, dust.  How do you control dust?

I mean this rhetorically.  Thanks again to the Internet, I know now there are ways to maybe control it — sand on a different day and in a different place than you paint, add or take away ventilation, pick a quick-drying finish — but honestly, if we are trying to control DUST (like roller fibers) I am out of my fucking league and have lost before I began.

My last ditch effort was to use nails in the bottoms of the drawer fronts, so they wouldn’t be drying horizontally and thus exposed to dust.  Not only did this fail to prevent dust, I got tiny runs.

I hadn’t been talking about it much because I was too frustrated.  The boy found me was staring at them like one might eye their mortal foe.  “They’re really starting to look good?”

This was too much for me to take and the whole tale came tumbling out.  He nodded like a reasonable person.  “Sounds like it’s not going to work.  You could always silver leaf them…”

I was really considering it.  I’d spent a lot of money and I’d learned a lot about paint and finishes, but I still didn’t have drawers I liked and I was beginning to realize I’d picked the absolute hardest finish to achieve — and I might not be able to do it.  I had extra drawers, though, and if I was going to silver leaf them I could ruin them to my heart’s content.  So I decided to try one last thing: stripping the finish and staining them, then finishing with a wipe-on polyurethane, the fastest-drying of all the polyurethanes.  I even picked a less demanding semi-gloss finish to try to save myself a little heartache.

The dresser was finished in shellac, which dissolves in alcohol.  I tested it with rubbing alcohol, then went out and bought myself proper alcohol at the hardware store.  Removing it was messy but amazingly easy.  I ended up stickier than sticky and kind of fuzzy off denatured alcohol fumes (open a window! seriously!) but the whole disaster remained blessedly within the dropcloth.

I sanded the drawers smooth and then stained the drawers several times with India ink.  I bought a big bottle for $9ish at an art supply store.  From what I understand, India ink is shellac based, so it’s safe to let it dry on the wood.  This didn’t disguise the grain, but gave a beautiful rich result and for the first time in this whole process, I dared to feel real hope.

I can’t say enough good things about Minwax wipe-on poly.  It smells terrible like all oil-based things do, and you’ll need to do a billion coats, at least 5 before it starts to build and get any real depth, but the thinness of the coats is what gives it that quick-drying dust resistance and SAVES YOUR FUCKING LIFE.

Finished picture to come.

Money spent: tons, but the furniture was free and undeniably one-of-a-kind and priceless and I learned so much and amused myself (at least I will call it that to keep from crying) for hours and hours. So if you break it down by hourly cost it was pretty cheap.  Right?  RIGHT?

I still haven’t done the nightstand/side table to match.  I’ve been to Home Depot a billion times at this point and never pulled the trigger on buying pipe legs so I think there is subconscious resistance going on.  I WONDER WHY.

hell is a DIY gone wrong?

3 May

I can’t believe I’m doing this … but after a total failure with latex paint on the top of my nightstand, I’m stripping it.  AGAIN.

I put down two coats, very carefully, with a $10 brush — not technically the best I could afford, but the best I was prepared to ruin.  And despite my careful technique, there were brush strokes.  Big, ugly brush strokes on every inch of the thing.

The Internet said either I was fucked, or I could maybe wet sand with a fine grit of sandpaper and top coat with a roller? I wet sanded very very very carefully, but it didn’t really work, and then I cut through to the bare wood.

So now it is swaddled in Saran Wrap and Citristrip and the house has that vague aroma of orange that I am beginning to abhor.

I don’t even know what the plan is now.  We’ll see what it looks like when the paint comes off.  If the top isn’t too mangled, maybe I should just polyurethane the damn thing over the now surprisingly blonde wood and call it a day.

In better project news, the sideboard/entertainment table is finally on its casters and it looks great!

The original legs were attached with only couple small screws into the body.  The casters needed (I measured) four 3/8″ bolts each to attach them.  This is big.  My drill bit set didn’t come with a 3/8″ bit, but for reference, it’s the last size before you get into paddle bits.

Rather than slam sixteen enormous bolts through my furniture, I had the Home Depot guy cut me four pieces of wood just larger than the bases of the casters.  I marked and drilled each hole halfway through with a 1/2″ drill bit, to sink the head of the bolt, then all the way with a 3/8″ bit.  Then I put the bolts in the pieces of wood, heads toward the bottom of my (currently upside down) furniture and legs sticking out, and used four small wood screws to attach the piece of wood.  The casters went onto the bolts, then I tightened the nuts, and then we set it upright.

Does that make sense?  It’s OK if it doesn’t make sense to you, because I feel enormously clever and that’s what matters.

I’d planned to paint the shell black, but after the latex paint fiasco, I’m scared.  I think I need to use oil paint (with thinner/conditioner) to get the glossy finish I want.  I’ve never used oil paint.  On the other hand, apparently shellac is easy to repair, so … I could just try to restore the original finish and paint the drawers instead.  I’ve never used shellac either.  Why aren’t these decisions easy?!

refinishing the occasional table of doom

1 May

It’s really a nightstand, but occasional table sounds way fancier.

I’d been looking for a table for our landing strip. See, I have this theory that good design is intuitive.  In other words, the places things go should be so obvious and easy that they organize themselves.  We were losing things constantly and I was convinced it was a systems problem, not a behavioral one.  I needed to do something to our entryway.  ANYTHING.

First I redid the closet with Closetmaid wire shelving, which I will never do again helped with storage but did not solve the daily coat-on-upstairs-bed problem.  Then I put Ikea coat hooks on the outside of the door, which did help. I was hoping a table would attract keys, purses and shoes.

I fell in love with this guy at Second Dibs and took him (her?) home.  Underneath it reads “Davis Cabinet Company – Walnut Nite Stand”. Spelling errors and a missing drawer pull aside, I was happy.

The finish on this guy was in rough shape.  There was never any question of leaving it.  I could have taken the easy road and painted it all, but I just couldn’t bear to do that to solid walnut.  Off to Home Depot I went for chemical stripper, paint thinner to rinse the stripper, steel wool pads, and a plastic dropcloth.

All the pictures of me stripping it are MIA and this is VERY UPSETTING. It was a sticky, messy, frustrating process that took ages and I really wanted sympathy.  Oh well.  I picked the “safer” product, Citristrip, since I was going to use it inside.  The scent was actually quite pleasant.  For a second I thought this was going to be easy and then it ate through both pairs of my kitchen gloves.

Here are the post-stripping photos, where you can see the beginnings of bare wood.

So much lighter!  So much healthier!  Too bad this was only the beginning.

I can’t even tell you how effing proud I am that I got all the goo out of those grooves.

Work to be done.

I needed 80 and 120 grit sandpaper in order to proceed, so it sat like that for a week.  When I started sanding it I realized this was going to be more work than I had counted on.

See that?  That is where I went back a second time and reapplied the stripper, in the grooves where the finish had settled.  Both dark and light bits are bare wood, I’m sure of it — so either the Citristrip bleached my wood (which would be disastrous, and means I have to paint or stain it dark) or it’s lifting the old stain.  Which means I might be able to sand it out.

Well, here goes nothing.

My arms gave out before reaching “perfect”, but what a difference.  The wood turned a new lighter shade (for the second time in this project) and became uniform.  Well, more uniform.

I’ll never try this without an orbital sander again.  Non-trivial safety note: hand sanding is no joke!  I didn’t put on the dust mask immediately so now my chest is tight, I’m coughing/sneezing brown ick and I have sawdust in my eyelashes.  Next time you’re going to see me decked out like Bill Nye the Science Guy.

I left the back of the cupboard doors untouched so you can see how bad it really was.  No effort without appreciation!

I wiped with damp paper towel, then dusted the corners with a toothbrush, and then tack cloth.  Then I vacuumed.

Finally, the rewarding part:

Bringing it into the 21st century with a coat of primer (Valspar Interior Latex Enamel Undercoater).  I thought long and hard about whether to use oil-based primer, which is supposed to be more durable, but I already owned this.

After 2 hours of dry time per the container, I sanded this lightly and put on a thin coat of black latex paint (Valspar Latex Enamel).  It looks pretty gnarly, but after using this paint on my white bathroom door, I should expect it.

Hold on … Must go stare at my door and try not to panic.

The problem is that now I’m seeing brushstrokes everywhere — on my table top and on my previously perfect door.  Ugggggh.  I guess I can wait, sand a smidge (can you sand latex paint? oh God please) and then try to use a roller.  SUCH SUSPENSE!  Will I survive the week?  Will I ever make it to polyurethane?!

the story of the sideboard, part 1

26 Apr

So you remember the Magical Sideboard of Hope, yes?

After a two-week glory lap, it was banished from the living room for its missing hardware …

… paint drips …

… and assorted chips and scratches.

Oh, and there was that weird gold-tone hardware.  Here it is on the nightstand:

Yeah, not into it.  I’d say that The Boy was also “not into it” but that would be like saying he tolerates cottage cheese.

Well, NO MORE!

I’d been considering a number of things for replacement legs.  Hairpins? Wood tapers? None of it got me excited.  Too prissy.  Not aggressive enough to stand up to our black leather sofa amd The Boy’s ball chair.

Then it hit me while browsing Apartment Therapy: I should put it on casters.  Not just any casters but huge, crusty industrial casters that would give it both height and attitude.  I would pull out some of the drawers, install shelves to fit our AV equipment, cut holes to route our cords and have the snazziest entertainment center in Jersey City.

It turns out I am the last person to have this idea.  Not only have midcentury modern and industrial been done, they’ve been done so thoroughly that salvaged casters are unaffordable on eBay and folks are charging $250 on Etsy for the custom-aged “vintage style” casters they make for their industrial chic pieces.  So, I bought new casters and Googled rust paint.  What?!  I like what I like.  Sometimes it is is wonderful living with a man to whom I had to explain the word “meme”.

While I’m waiting for my casters, I started refinishing a vintage end table.  Stay tuned!  It’s been pretty intense.

dress forms and mannequins

24 Apr

This is not terribly self-help-y, but … look at what I found for my sewing room!

Yes, I have a sewing room.  That was my reward for moving to Jersey.  If you’re jealous, I know you’re not from New York because my NYC friends  — even the ones who sew — still don’t think it’s worth it.

I was on 40th St when I discovered two things: Paron was not where I left it, and there was a moving sale next door.  Several mannequins were on the street.  Some were holding up signs like “LAST DAY”, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” and “EVERYTHING MUST GO”.  These are common sights in the Garment District and I would usually ignore them, but for the enormous moving truck.

I’ve never “just been walking down the street” and happened upon something valuable. That happens to other people.  People who are not me.  But here I was, with my Zipcard miraculously in my wallet and enough charge on my phone (barely — that much is typical) to make an overnight reservation.

Before I knew it I was cruising home, my back seat awash in plastic people parts.

It is almost exactly my size.

I like the shop wear on the stand, but as you see here, the cover had to be washed.  When I pretreated it, the water turned brown!

Underneath the cover was this crazy extruded foam.

The stand was wobbly, so I turned it over and discovered three wing nuts.  I tightened them.  It wobbled less.  My favorite kind of repair.

I also bought two stand mannequins.  What will I do with two mannequins?  I don’t know, but right now, they are keeping my heart exercised since every time I use the downstairs bathroom in the dark I jump a goddamn mile.