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Home Improvements

Just for something completely different, I’ve been working on redoing the bathroom.  (Well, no, technically I did it because mom told me to.)  So what happens when your friendly neighborhood sempstress trades in her sewing machine and scissors for a paint brush and a miter saw?  Here’s what’s been keeping me away from the computer….

Walking in to the bathroom
Dum! Dum! Dum! The view going in to the newly refinished bathroom.
The vanity
I really made this! Well, I mean, I assembled all the pieces and got the water to flow through them...
The lights
And the lights.... Really, hang the lights after you paint. Trust me.
Wall Storage, pt 1
The top of the door-frame-turned-wall-storage. The open shelves are dad's original built-in, while the door units were once part of the old vanity mirror he built.
Wall storage, pt 2
Below dad's contributions are mine: a box with pull-down door, and a surprisingly neat mitered baseboard.
Well deco
Here's a better view of the paint job, and the little display. The big orange leaf is a formed leather jobby I made mom a couple years ago.

I don’t have a before picture.  That’s because I was desperately denying that I was about to be dragged into the project.  Lame, but also honest.  It would be fair to say that the last time the bathroom had a major overhaul was round-abouts 1985.  Things were big, and oak and cultured marble and that tacky shiny brass we all associate with the 80’s.  (You know, that official 80’s bathroom brass?  Looks tacky under any lighting, so why not stick it into the best-lit room in the house?)  The vanity stuck out 2″ past its designated niche.  It was oak, and designed to accommodate a family of four.  The top was beige cultured marble, with a recessed shell-shaped sink.  That’s right….  It could only have been more 80’s if it had been made of pink cultured marble.  There was a suitable large mirror, flanked to either side by mirrored storage cabinets, and topped with globe lights.  Dad made that.  It was solid oak.  (For those of you who didn’t have the privilege of knowing my dad, he had a couple of rules for construction: never use a 1 1/2″ screw when a 3″ one will fit, use the heaviest materials possible, and when in doubt, secure it with an angle bracket.  These will be important later, as will his over-riding philosophy of home improvement: if dad was going to put something together once, he was going to put it together so that it never came apart again.)  Dad also built the 5′ tall set of oak towel bars, the oak medicine cabinet with little side shelvies to hold curios (read: dust),  the waist-tall oak laundry hamper (I’m not kidding – the man really liked oak) and the built-in semi-craftsman style shelving unit above, both designed to sit in the recess of a door frame.  The door itself had long since been removed and the opening covered on the other side, but why waste a 27″x4″ piece of bathroom real estate?   Those shelves were, shockingly, oak.  So were the baseboards and the trimwork.

Mercifully, at some point in the early 90’s, mom had gotten sick of the wallpaper  she’d originally chosen (it was a small diamond pattern designed for that “we’re all a little country” phase of the 80’s), taken the paper down, and redone the walls in off white with sort of evergreen sponge painting.  She made a rather unique design decision about the importance of white space between sponge marks during the process, and the overall effect was … splotchy.  (She says, with fair confidence that her mother will never read this.)  Predictably enough, the old wall paper past caused some additional character to develop in the paint.  So the walls are sort of pitted and weird in places – they’ve got the wallboard equivalent of psoriasis.

This redo actually started a year ago, when we had to have the tub cut out and replaced with a walk-in for gramma when she moved in.  (Her previous approach, which seemed to involve a belief that people over a certain age were exempt from bath-time, wasn’t an option in our world.)  So, suddenly our poor little remember-the-80’s bathroom was hauled brutally into the modern era of Bath Fitter.  Well, the back half of it was, at any rate.  The front half stayed right where it was.  The poor toilet, with it’s oak lid and seat, just looked confused.

Fast forward a year.  All medical crises have been resolved, I finished school, my job evaporated, and lo and behold, the bathroom hadn’t redecorated itself.  Darn it.  The job started with mom washing walls, hoping to get all the wallpaper paste off.  After two weeks of that, we found out that there are “problem surface primers” that will seal in the ugly so it can’t destroy your new paint.  Good to know.  It’s way faster.  Then we took out everything that was built in.  Now, it’s worth noting that my mother is not so good with an electric drill.  So when I say “we took out”, the process goes something like this: Mom tells me to do something.  I say, “Ok, sure, just give me a minute, I’m in the middle of something” and go back to my computer.  Time elapses.  I hear the sound of mom using my drill.  I save my work and count to 10.  I hear swearing.  I go do whatever it was.  That makes my mom sound bad, but you have to know two things about the situation.  Firstly, mom fully admits that she’s not good with the drill.  Secondly, my father took a sort of invulnerability-through-obfuscation approach to attaching things to walls.  Mom took all the obvious screws out of the oak medicine cabinet over the toilet, for example, and it clung stubbornly to the wall.  You’d have to know my dad’s mind to realize that he’d used angle irons at the top, and the cabinet was hanging from them.  To his mind, an ugly hack that no one could see was a perfectly acceptable solution.  The mirrored vanity unit, likewise, employed angle irons at the top.  But those were apparently just for added stability.  It was really fastened on by a series of Really Long Screws around the mirror, which, honestly, didn’t look like they were doing much.  The vanity was a bigger challenge.  For one thing, the stupid cultured marble sink (which is a good yard long by 20″ deep) weighs a lot.  I mean, a lot of a lot. And it was caulked down.  (Which is odd, since this was done by my father, The Man Who Relied On Gravity(tm).  I mean, most people count on it, but for dad, it was a constructive force to be harnessed in building projects.  He was building a deck once.  The building inspector came over and questioned what was going to hold the top of the deck in place on the concrete supports.  Dad replied, “Gravity.”)

You learn a lot about someone when you take apart their work.  My dad liked to grab at the solution that would absolutely fix the problem.  I realized that when I tried to get the vanity away from the wall – that should have been really simple.  Yank.  Done.  But no….  So far as I can tell, dad had shut off the house water supply to install the sink.  The back of the vanity had custom drilled holes, large enough to accommodate the pipes, but not the shut-off valves. I should have been more suspicious when mom was surprised that I could turn off the water to just the sink….    Mom had a lot of suggestions, all involving the clever and cunning application of power tools, which might have worked if they were being wielded by someone else, or if there had not been pipes in the middle of the project, or if I’d had more than 4″ of clearance to the wall, or if I hadn’t been fairly irate about it all at the time.  My solution was less graceful, but it involved a large set of pliers and produced a lot of splintered bits of wood, and it was infinitely satisfying.

So with everything out, we (read: I) installed a new light fixture, sealed all the walls, primed the walls and ceiling (do you know how many coats of primer you need to cover high-contrast sponge-painting? Three), and put up the basecoat.  It’s a nice, light neutral with spa-like appeal.  Looking back, I should have done the lights last, so I wouldn’t have had to paint around them so many times….  Mom started painting all the oak we were keeping black.  I got to work on the vanity.  Mom had rejected absolutely every vanity we saw in DIY centers with “It just doesn’t make me happy. It should make me happy.”  Ditto to every sink and faucet.  She wanted a little asian inspired chest for a vanity.  Really?  With a vessel sink.  Huh?  I didn’t want to disappoint her by pointing out that I’m not, in fact, my dad, and I’m generally useless for any bit of home improvement more advanced than hanging a picture.  And to be totally honest, I use those little 3M strips for the pictures….  Ok.  So I asked google what I was supposed to do, because the internet is really quite clever these days.  Then I got the appropriately sized hole saws (which, perversely, are a specialized drill bit), and set about to ruining a ridiculously over-priced cupboard.  My mother’s ridiculously overpriced cupboard.  Ye gods.  But, miraculously, I didn’t screw it up.  (I did cut the opening for the plumbing offset to the wrong side, but that was fixable and more a product of dyslexia than inherent cluelessness.)  I topped the unit with that super-cool epoxy bar sealer stuff, and let it dry for the requisite 3 days.

Meanwhile, we made a million zillion trips to the hardware store.  Mom eventually settled on baseboards (plain) and a floor (we started looking at tiles last June, I might point out), and a color for the faux painted stone effect we were doing on the bottom 2/3rds of the wall.  We did the faux painting – it was a 2 person job, and relies on the fact that alcohol makes paint run oddly.  (The directions called for denatured alcohol, but I tried it with isopropyl and it worked like a charm, with a far less heady aroma.)  We (read: I) put in the new floor.  That was no big, since it was just self-stick vinyl.  I’m oddly allergic to most adhesives, and dealing with those little monsters with gloves on is a special trick, but it got done.  I’ve put in vinyl tile floors before.  Mysteriously, this time, when I approached the oh-crap-there’s-a-toilet-where-I-want-to-put-a-tile part, a quiet voice in the back of my head pointed out that ever piece of tile comes with a piece of paper I could use for a quick template.  That worked way better than my old looks-about-right system.  Then we put in baseboards, which I was trying to avoid, because baseboards involve the miter saw, and that involves precision measuring.  Now, sure, I’m a seamstress, but it’s worth noting that I work primarily in eras where the first thing we do is corset people.  I’m used to controlling the measurements.  I can’t corset the bathroom.  Oh, bother.  Also, I need mom’s help for this step, and mom is terrified of the miter saw and tends to cringe and flinch when I start it.  This decreases the odds of me getting the cuts right even further…..

But hey, wow, baseboards in, vanity in place, travertine vessel sink (thank you, in place, faucet set in place and ….  The faucet connections are 3/4″ too short to reach the house pipe.  So we went back to the hardware store.  I had the presence of mind to bring one of the offending flexi-bendy-metal-braid hoses from the faucet.  What ensued was a 45 minute fiasco in the plumbing department.  Apparently, plumbers don’t deal in increments less than 16″, so to extend a hose 3/4″ I’d need to add a 16″ hose.  Huh?  Being my father’s daughter, I politely suggested that I could just stack a couple connection converters to frankenstein up a little extension.  (Because you can use a converter to go up a diameter, then another to go right back to your original diameter.  It does nothing, other than take up space.)  But nooooo, apparently plumbers don’t do that, because there’s only one true pipe size in the good ol’ US of A.  (We have a standard with only one option?  Who knew?)  He proudly brought me over to a display to show me the One True Pipe Size.  That’s when problems started, because the hose didn’t fit the One True Pipe Size.  It was using the good ol’ Iron Pipe sizing, instead of the Inside Diameter system (aka, the One True Pipe Size).  Well, how about a converter?  I was so innocent and unwise when I asked that question…..  The conversation escalated to “Why did you order a faucet on the internet, anyway?!”  “I didn’t.  I’m just the dumb labor.  Talk to my mother.”  “Why couldn’t you get her to buy a faucet here, huh?  Then you wouldn’t be having this problem.”  “Well, why can’t you stock any faucets she likes?”  And then it got worse, because the guy starts pulling out copper pipe.  Now, the only thing I know about copper is that you weld it, and I don’t weld.  So I zoned out in a general state of terror.  The fellow must have seen the look on my face, because he finally pronounced my death sentence: “Wait… You don’t have a plumber for this, do you?”  (Of course I don’t have a plumber for this….  Why would I be in the bloody DIY store if I HAD A PLUMBER?  I’d have SENT THE PLUMBER.  You know why?  Because I don’t plumb, dammit.)  And then it really got bad.  The man gave me parts (and I was nearly entirely confident they were the right ones, except for how he didn’t have his readers with him – and no, I’m not kidding) and made it pretty clear that he thought my odds were grim.  He just sucked all of the can-do out of my soul, and kicked the happy fluffly puppy of my home improvement joy in the face.  It was brutal.  I was almost in tears in the car.  (That probably didn’t help my mother’s nerves any….)

This is the part I'm most proud of. I built plumbing out of a bit of copper pipe and a pile of fittings. I made water flow through pipes that have never held water before! So far, no leaks....

But… All told, the plumbing took about 20 minutes.  And it doesn’t leak.  So there, Mr. You-don’t-have-a-plumber.  I guess he told me the right stuff after all.  I mean, except for the part about directions in the package with the gidgers labelled “compression nuts”.  There were instructions, but they were very vague, very small, and very badly translated.  Given my earlier tantrum state, I tried to make things up to mom by showing her how to put the drain pipe together.

Ok.  So them mom wanted me to take apart the old oak mirror unit, shorten the two side cupboards, install them under the built-in shelving in the old door frame, and make a little unit for underneath.  Erm….  Ok, I’m not a carpenter either.  And these units are oak.  I mean, 20+ year old oak that’s been living in a bathroom.  They’re hard.  I’ve never broken so many screws in my life (and that’s with pre-drilling all the holes!)  And I have the privilege of being one of very few people who can cut a wavy line with a circular saw.  Sure, that’s easy if you’ve got a few feet to work with, but in a 9″ wide board?  It’s practically supernatural.  And annoying.  When they were finished, I started trying to sort out how I was going to mount them.  I can screw each unit into the door frame on one side, but I had this feeling like they should have support in the middle too.  I could rely on the base unit I had to make to support them, but what are the odds of me getting something cut exactly the right height?  Not so good.  Also, the built-in shelving was 3/4″ deeper than the cabinets, and mom wanted things to line up.  Ultimately, I decided I’d brace a board across the middle of the space (using angle irons) and brace the cabinets against that (more angle irons – thanks, dad).  It held the unsupported side, and it bumped them out.  Ok,  Great.

That’s about when I found out that the wallboard inside the old door frame is bowed.  Also, the frame isn’t entirely straight.  And the boards are a touch warped.  Oh, and the opening isn’t plumb.  As dad used to say, “That’s ok….  I don’t cut straight, neither.”  And he wasn’t kidding, because the actual cabinets weren’t quite square, and on close inspection, some of the boards were a little longer at the bottom than others.  The tops, also, were off, but that was my fault.  And they don’t exactly fill the entire door frame side to side, either – we’d been planning to put a cross-bar between to hide the ugly, but the space was 2 1/2″ wide at the top and a mere 2″ at the bottom.  Huh.  It’s a double-decker magazine rack now….   I built a little box with a pullsy-downsy door for the bottom (which took time and foul language – again, I am not a carpenter….  It looks so easy when people do this stuff on tv, doesn’t it?  I mean, it’s a box.  It’s square.  How hard could it be?  Heh.  Don’t ask.)  But ultimately, I won, and the box consented to be made.  Then the last of the baseboard went in, and the trim between the plain paint and the faux paint (which even miters up around the lights).

And then mom proceeded to reject every single mirror for sale in the western hemisphere.  After weeks of searching, we finally found the perfect mirror…. tucked between a book case and a wall in the dining room.  (Isn’t that always the last place you look for a mirror?)  I just hung it this evening.  Yay!  ‘Cause seriously, it’s ridiculously difficult to brush your teeth without a mirror.  And oy, but I need to do some brow maintenance….


  1. missa
    missa March 14, 2010

    Oh, more home improvements…. While waiting for mom to pick a mirror, I had time to pick a new paint color, repaint my room, finish the trimwork I started a year ago, and redo the most egregious of the baseboard joins. Everything in the house is going craftsman, with the ceiling color extending down part of the wall and the trim there where the wall color and ceiling color meet. That’s because after 35 years, we’re seeing the signs of crap construction — none of the ceilings are straight. My room, particularly, is a series of arches between ceiling joists. On the plus side, I love the color and all of my books are now organized by topic. ;)

  2. Fasteners
    Fasteners September 30, 2010

    Great post, and from the pictures I think its safe to say that you can trade in your sewing machine for some tools and start doing renovations for other people!

  3. Industrial Fasteners
    Industrial Fasteners August 24, 2011

    Great post, the pictures look great. Have you done any courses on decorating this looks very professional.

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