Some Scars Don’t Heal on Their Own
It all began with a pan of smoking bacon grease.
A few weeks earlier, my soon-to-be ex had left a pan of bacon grease on a still-hot burner and in the ensuing chaos of the smoke-filled kitchen, the pan had caught on fire. The hot pan melted a part of the laminate counter near the stove and on this bright sunny day in June, with my soon-to-be ex in Pennsylvania for the summer, I stood contemplating the burn marks, and the attempted repair of the counter with a plastic paint (no, not by me).
My mind wandered between the messed-up counter and my job search, and scrolled through my to-do list for the day. What should I do today? I should get my career back on track after several years as a stay-at-home Mom. I should take some night-school classes to get current on a few topics. I should clean the garage. I should make a list of all the things that need to be fixed around the house and start fixing them.
And then I thought of a line from “Sex and the City” where Carrie wonders how much time women spend “should-ing all over ourselves”.
Should-ing All Over Ourselves
I realized I should do a lot of things that day, just like I’ve spent most of the days of my life doing the things I should do, whether I want to do them or not.
Instead, I ripped out the kitchen counters.
And so began another home remodeling project.
The Tale Behind the Tale
Let me give you some background.
My Northwest Austin kitchen was original – vintage 1982. Dark brown cabinets (but good quality), ivory laminate counters, and a seriously, seriously ugly vinyl floor. It was clean at best, but depressing at worst. In the summer of 2005, I needed to be surrounded by pretty, not ugly.
My kitchen remodel became a turning point, from doing what I should, to doing what I wanted, while still keeping in mind the needs of my family, and the realities of life and finances. Once upon a time I would have repaired the kitchen counter in the most practical of ways – by replacing it with another laminate and calling it done. Instead, I went FABULOUS, and re-did almost the entire kitchen.
By doing a lot of the work myself, and working hard on deals with vendors and tradesmen, I managed to get it done on a reasonable budget.
While working on the kitchen, I bonded with neighbors, sang a lot of songs at the top of my lungs, and learned a whole heck of a lot about the contrast between what looks easy on HGTV (all of it!) and what isn’t so easy when you’re doing it yourself at midnight and the caffeine is wearing off (most of it!).
Before: The Original Kitchen
Here are a few photos of the original kitchen:
Wouldn’t you have ripped that out, too?
Taking the kitchen part, of course, was way easier than getting it back together. It would have helped if I had had a plan, but I didn’t. This was a spontaneous remodel. As a master planner of every little detail of everything I do (or anything anyone else does, for that matter), spontaneous is generally not part of my project vocabulary.
Some Times You Need a Plan, Sometimes You Don’t
Despite having no plan, I got lucky! So lucky!
A mom from my Girl Scout Troop gave me the name of a guy who had some guys who could come sand the cabinets and remove the rest of the counter (okay, it was a little harder than I had expected it to be, and the counter was integrated with the back splash, so that had to come out, too). After that, I kicked it into high gear – it was GAME ON!
And I got even luckier!
A salesman from a mesquite counter store called to say that a commercial customer had backed out of a big order, and would I be interested in some end-grain 2 ½” thick mesquite butcher block counters, at a discount? Why YES, I would! (So, he HAD taken me seriously when I said, “give me a call if you can ever offer a better price”!)
The mesquite salesman gave me the name of an iron guy who could make the required support structure for the counter, to keep it from cracking under pressure, of say, a small child jumping up and down on the overhanging part. Not that I have any that would do that – do you?
The iron guy, Peter Rehme, of Rehme Custom Ironwork dropped by to give me a quote.
After giving him the tour, and a run down of what I was hoping he could build, he said (I kid you not), “Alison, I have to be honest with you. I don’t do jobs this small”. After staring at him for a few moments while I considered my options, I countered with a proposal that got us both what we wanted: iron work for me, some return on his investment of time for him. Two days later, Peter and his brother showed up with the counter support, a pot rack (!!), some decorative curly brackets, a shelf for over the stove, and a support structure for the new downstairs master bathroom counter (technically, I hadn’t even taken out the old one, YET). I knew that asking for the pot rack was probably pushing my luck, but sometimes we need what we need and I knew I needed a pot rack.
Peter’s iron art evolves from basic iron bars and iron plate, not from catalog parts.
I LOVE LOVE LOVE his sense of style, and his work is top-quality. To be fair, now that I have seen quite a bit of his work, my job really was small potatoes, but I am grateful he was still willing to work me into his schedule. Keep him in mind for when you’re planning your own remodeling project – his website has a great gallery of work, including staircases, enormous gates, and lots of truly custom pieces.
The counter price, by the way, didn’t include templating (making it fit), delivery or installation. It turned into one BIG JOB to coordinate all of the elements involved to get it installed. I love how it looks but I’d think twice about putting in another one, unless ALL of the necessary services were included in the price – caveat emptor!
The Design Center of Austin
One completely unexpected joy of this project was discovering the Austin School of Faux Finishes, in the Design Center of Austin, at old Penn Field off South Congress. The owner of the Austin School of Faux Finishes, artist Lu Goodwin Mark, has a fantastic sense of color and style. Lu teaches classes on the art of fine finishes, for walls, woodwork, cabinet and floors, some faux and some real. I promptly signed up for her classes on European Plasters, plus one on glazes (taught by local master artist Pat Strong) and one on SkimStone, a product that looks like venetian plaster for the floor. After years of classes in hard science (Chemistry!), taking one just for the pleasure of learning a decorative skill was really really rewarding.
If you haven’t visited the Design Center of Austin, take an afternoon and go see what some local businesses have to offer. The buildings at Penn Field house a kitchen remodeling showroom with fantastic upper-end cabinetry (ALNO), a modern lighting store (Alexander Marchant), one that sells really cool bathroom fixtures and another that sells high-end cabinet and door hardware, including some you won’t find elsewhere around town. The Design Center is also home to Vintage Material and Supply Company, which reclaims and sells vintage timber and lumber, including old-growth long leaf pine, sinker pine, sinker cypress, and native Texas timbers.
The Design Center of Austin is located on South Congress, West of 35 and North of 290:
I must tell you, once I discovered the Design Center, my eyes opened WIDE. Actually, I think I started hyperventilating. This place will greatly expand what you recognize is possible when designing, or re-designing your own home or offices. You don’t have to go high-end with everything to end up with a gorgeous space, but a few high-end touches can really change the entire look and feel of a room.
Get Your Art On
If you’ve ever thought about taking some art classes, just DO IT. You’ll never know how good you might be at something until you try. You might make some new friends, too!
From my SkimStone class, I had the skills necessary to refinish my concrete floors. SkimStone is a hybridized portland cement and goes down in thin layers with a decorative finish trowel. The floors have to be exceptionally smooth and clean and you have to work fast, but the end result is worth the effort, and if you do the work yourself, it is very economical (under $1.00 a square foot, or even cheaper if you really plan your product usage well). Most of the first floor in my house is now covered with SkimStone, with 2″ metallic slate tile edging instead of quarter-round. It is cold in the winter, like tile, but it is durable and when you get tired of it, you can cover it up with tile, wood, vinyl or carpet without having to take it back out.
A Really Big Sink
After the complications of getting the mesquite counter installed, I thought the rest of the remodel would be smooth sailing. I was wrong. The hardest part of the kitchen turned out to be getting the sink in place. A sink! I desperately wanted a farmhouse-style sink and in 2005, these weren’t as readily available as they are in 2009. I called all over, shopped the web and finally found one – a HUGE one – for half the going rate, freight from somewhere in the midwest included in the price! Whoo hoo!
Unfortunately, the sink didn’t arrive on the scheduled day, and with the granite counter guys scheduled to arrive the next morning, I was pulling my hair out. I finally got hold of the carrier, located the sink on a loading dock in San Antonio and talked them into staying open just a little bit late so I could come fetch. One kind friend signed up for the ride (wouldn’t you?) and we drove down to San Antonio. When we got there I asked the one worker left if he could just “throw it in the back” of my wagon for me and he just smiled like I was nuts. It took a forklift to get it into my car and we drove like a low-rider all the way home.
With the floors, sink and counters in place, I turned my new-found artistic tools (from the Austin School of Faux Finishes) loose on the cabinets. The cabinets, inside and out, are painted with Benjamin Moore’s Concord Ivory, glazed with burnt umber and then finished with three coats of polyurethane for durability. I wanted them to look old, kind of like European antiques. I also wanted a finish that could withstand my kids enthusiastic assaults on the kitchen in search of a nibble or two. 4 years later, the finish has held up like a champ. Pat Strong‘s class on cabinet door glazes was the key – if you take the time and know what you want in the end, you CAN DO IT! And if by chance, you can’t do it right, you can do it again! Here are some the the paint finishes we did in the glazes class, with the last one being the one selected for this job.
After: An Old Kitchen, Updated
And, here are the final shots of the kitchen. If I can get it cleaned up again this week, I’ll take a few more, from some of the original spots for comparison!
As a final touch, I had Custom Sheet Metal of Austin (near the corner of Payton Gin and Lamar) cut pieces of metal plate to use as bulletin boards in what was originally the breakfast area of the kitchen. The black trim underneath turned out to be necessary to keep them from sliding off the wall while the glue dried. Yes, that was fun!
So, what was this remodel all about? Having a nice kitchen? No, not at all, although I do enjoy this space immensely. This was about finding my own way and not relying on my ex for the “hard” parts. When you only have yourself to depend on, you just have to keep going, even when it isn’t easy! So when it comes time for you to take a journey, even if it wasn’t one you had planned, keep in mind that YOU CAN DO IT! And, it can even be fabulous to find your own way HOME.