Feb 092015
 February 9, 2015  Uncategorized 5 Responses »

A week and a half ago, I had just started repairing the plaster ceiling in my building’s common laundry area on the ground floor of the stairwell, and things weren’t going well. After drilling a dozen holes in the ceiling, I hadn’t found a joist. Each new hole I drilled created a little cascade of plaster dust and loosened the surrounding plaster even more. I would later discover that the ceiling joists in this part of the stairwell not only run in the opposite direction from what I had expected, but are also spaced at irregular intervals.

Last year, I used construction adhesive to repair the loose plaster walls in the bedroom, which worked well and seems to be holding up all these months later. But since a large portion of the ceiling in the laundry area had completely detached from the lath, and was fighting a losing battle against the forces of gravity, I decided to use plaster buttons to reattach it to the lath.

Plaster buttons are special washers that can be used with screws to secure plaster to the underlying lath. The idea is that the plaster button distributes the pressure from the screw and prevents the surrounding plaster from cracking. Then, once the plaster is secure, the plaster buttons can be hidden with a skim coat of plaster or joint compound.

I began working in a corner of the ceiling where a small section of plaster had come loose. To fully support the weight of the ceiling, it’s best to screw plaster buttons directly into a ceiling joist. But as we’ve already established, joists were hard to come by in this corner of the ceiling. So instead, I settled for screwing the plaster buttons into the lath. But as I tightened the screw on the first plaster button, the entire plaster button punched through the crumbly plaster. The plaster in this area was so soft that it seemed to be held together by the ceiling paint and little else. I did my best to gently secure the surrounding plaster with more plaster buttons, but in the end I was left with a mess.

Plaster buttons in ceiling

I decided to leave the hole I had created in the ceiling for the time being and moved on to the ceiling’s main problem area – a roughly 3 foot by 4 foot section of cracked and buckled plaster that seemed ready to collapse at any moment.

Cracked Plaster Ceiling

When I tried pushing the loose plaster back into place, I discovered that a bunch of plaster chunks had gathered above the loose plaster, preventing it from sitting flush against the lath. The loose plaster also had the consistency of damp cardboard, so I decided to pull it all down and replace it with sheetrock. I used a utility knife to cut a line between the loose plaster and the stable plaster to prevent any damage to the stable parts of the ceiling, and to keep the area of missing plaster as square as possible so that it would be easy to fill in with sheetrock later. And then I  set about peeling the old plaster away in big chunks.

Every time I remove old plaster, I think I’ll be able to contain the dust, but it never works out that way. I did my best to set up plastic drop cloths to seal off the floor and the washer and dryer. But as I pulled down the ceiling, I was showered in sandy plaster dust, which I expected, and a thick black grime of unknown origin, which I did not expect. It seemed to be the sort of black dust that tends to accumulate in cities. It must have settled in the space above the ceiling during the century-and-a-half since the ceiling was installed. Some of the dust that rained down on me probably originated in Industrial-Revolution-era coal fires. I could really feel the history. Fortunately, I was wearing a respirator, so I wasn’t breathing in the history.

After a shower and some intensive shop vaccing, I went out and picked up a sheet of 3/8-inch sheetrock, which is about the same thickness as the existing plaster. I used a 3-foot by 4-foot panel of sheetrock to fill in the area of missing plaster. I screwed the sheetrock directly into the ceiling joists, which of course were now easy to find since I had completely exposed them.

Once the sheetrock patch was up, there was a half-inch gap between the existing ceiling and the new patch. I covered this gap with drywall tape and a 50:50 mixture of joint compound and plaster of paris, sometimes called hybrid plaster. The plaster of paris acts as a hardening agent, while the joint compound keeps the mixture smooth and workable. This hybrid plaster hardens in about 10 minutes, which meant I had to work quickly using small batches of plaster, but it also made it possible for me to apply two coats of plaster in one day. And unlike joint compound, the hybrid plaster doesn’t shrink as it dries. If you’re interested in mixing up some hybrid plaster yourself, this guy on youtube will show you how it’s done.

Sheetrock Patch

As for that disastrous section of the ceiling that I filled with holes and plaster buttons, I was able to pull away some of the loose plaster and re-plaster over the whole mess. Although it still needs touching up, this section of the ceiling now looks much better and feels reasonably solid.Ceiling Skim Coat

The ceiling is now almost ready for paint. All that’s left is to touch up a few spots with another coat of joint compound and some light sanding to smooth everything out.

As you may have heard, we’ve gotten some snow here in Boston over the past few days. There’s over five feet of snow on the ground as of today, which means that sidewalks have been reduced to slippery, single-file trenches, and the time-honored Boston tradition of using overturned trash cans and folding chairs as parking space savers in the days after a snow storm is threatening to become a permanent practice. It also means that Gregg hasn’t been able to get started working on the front stairs. But assuming it ever stops snowing, I’ll share some more progress on the front stairs.Boston Snow

Jan 242015
 January 24, 2015  Uncategorized 12 Responses »

Front StairsA few months ago, I sold my old sofa on Craigslist. When the buyer came over to pick it up, I buzzed her in, and as she walked inside she turned to her husband and exclaimed, “Oh! It’s all old inside!” She seemed genuinely shocked by the state of the front stairwell. Maybe she had unrealistically high expectations for the building’s interior after seeing the exterior (including the newly repaired and repainted front door). Or maybe her expectations were neutral and the stairwell just looked so crappy that she felt the need to say something. I was still upstairs at the time, so I don’t think she realized I heard her, but I wasn’t offended anyway. In fact, I remember having a similar reaction the first time I walked into the building when I was thinking about renting my now-condo, although I didn’t say anything out loud. In the two years since I first saw it, I’ve gotten used to the run-down state of the stairwell. But every now and then I pause and really look at it, and behind the dull paint, dim lighting, and chipped stair treads, it’s actually a really beautiful space. The original architecture is more or less intact, and like so much of the rest of the building it has a lot of Potential.

The stairwell is a common area in the building, so it falls under the purview of the condo association, which consists of me and the owners of the other three units in the building.  We’ve neglected the stairwell for the past few years in favor of more pressing maintenance projects, but this winter we finally decided to invest some time and money in the space. Let’s take a look at the current state of the stairwell and some of the changes we have planned for it.

Laundry Area Under the Stairs

This is the ground floor of the stairwell, one floor down from the main entranceway. This narrow hallway serves mainly as our common laundry area. The washer and dryer are tucked underneath the stairs, which is an efficient use of space. The door on the left at the end of the hallway leads down to the cellar. The washer and dryer are only a few years old, but every other aspect of this little hallway is in rough shape. I’m pretty sure it hasn’t been updated, or even maintained, since the 60s, and it’s seen some heavy use over the years. The linoleum floor tiles, which are beginning to crack and peel, are stuck directly to the original pine floors. I’d love to pull up the linoleum tiles someday and refinish the original floors, provided the tiles aren’t full of asbestos. It’d be nice to spruce up the laundry area as well with some fresh paint and some new shelving.

Cracked Plaster Ceiling

Of all the problems in the hallway, the one that requires the most immediate attention is the ceiling. A big section of  plaster in the center of the ceiling is detached from the underlying lath. The plaster has cracked under its own weight, and at its worst point, the ceiling is hanging down about three inches below the lath. It’s a pretty precarious situation, and there’s a very real risk that a big chunk of plaster could fall on someone’s head without warning. So needless to say, I’m planning to fix the ceiling asap. I’ll try to reattach the existing plaster to the lath, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll strip away the loose plaster and replace it with sheetrock.

Front Entrance

Moving upstairs to the first floor, this is the view looking toward the building’s main entrance. The first thing you’ll notice is that this space is really dark. Since the stairwell is located in the center of the building, it doesn’t get much natural light, which means we keep the overhead lights on most of the time (we should really install a motion sensor light switch). It also means that this space doesn’t photograph well. But at this point, the dim lighting might be for the best. It helps disguise the fact that every wall in the stairwell has been slathered in a chunky textured plaster treatment. Combined with the dim lighting, the textured plaster walls gives the stairwell a cave-like appearance that is completely at odds with the space’s original architectural elements. Eventually I’d like to skim coat all of the stairwell walls to a smooth finish. It will be a big job, but it will make a huge difference. And luckily, the walls seem really solid  – unlike most of the original plaster walls in the rest of the building – so there won’t be any extensive plaster repair needed.

A few other things I’d like to change on this level: The flooring consists of vinyl sheeting on top of a quarter-inch plywood underlayment. I’m almost positive that the original pine floors are hidden under the vinyl and plywood, and I’d eventually like to uncover and refinish them. Of course, there’s some risk involved in uncovering the original floors, since we won’t know what condition they’re in until we’ve torn out the current flooring, but I think it will be worth it. Also, the trim around the entrance way is inexplicably painted red, but that’s nothing that can’t be taken care of with some white paint and a lot of primer. And once I get around to painting the walls, I’ll also paint the exposed gas line and electrical conduit to match. I’d also like to replace the wall sconces with something brighter and more attractive.

Front Stairs

This is the view of the main staircase as you enter the building. There are a lot of impressive, original architectural details here – the newel post, the handrail, all of the curved trim and plasterwork – but there are also a lot of problems. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had friends over who have noted that the stairs are “kind of scary,” or asked “are these stairs safe?” Since I walk up and down these stairs a few times a day, I’ve gotten used to them. But the truth is, these stairs aren’t as safe as they could be. It’s not that the stairs are in danger of collapsing (trust me, we’ve had several contractors reassure us on this point), but the stairs simply don’t meet modern code. Since they’re so old, they’re not required to meet current code, but at the same time building code exists for a reason. The stairs are narrower than most modern stairs, the handrail is significantly lower, and the steps themselves are uneven, all of which adds up to a trip and fall hazard.

Newel Post

So we’re bringing my contractor, Gregg, in to address some of these problems. He’ll replace and level all of the stair treads, replace all of the balusters, and raise the existing handrail a few inches. In order to raise the handrail, he’ll also have to raise the newel post, probably by putting some sort of inconspicuous blocking under it.


The current stair treads are pine, which is a soft wood that wouldn’t be expected to last more than a few decades in this application. As you can see, many of the treads are chipped and cracked, and some of them have deep grooves worn into the center by decades of shuffling shoes. The current plan is for Gregg to replace the old treads with more-durable hardwood treads.

stair trim

Here’s a closeup look at one of the textured walls. Besides looking crappy, all the nooks and crannies on the walls collect a ton of dust – I’m not used to having to dust vertical surfaces. Below the wall is a really cool baseboard that curves upward, following the pitch of the stairs. The baseboard and a lot of the other woodwork in the stairwell is in rough shape. It’s covered in countless layers of cracked and chipped paint. Ideally I’d like to strip off all of the old paint and start fresh. Since most of the old paint here likely contains lead, the safest way to strip it is using a wet chemical stripper. But stripping the paint with a chemical stripper sounds like a lot of work, so it remains to be seen if I actually end up doing it.

coffin cornerOn the way up to the second floor, there’s a rounded nook built into the curved corner of the stairwell. Apparently these nooks were pretty common in 19th century row house stairwells. They’re sometimes called coffin corners, a name that originates from the misconception that these nooks were built to provide extra room for pallbearers to maneuver a coffin down the stairs. In reality, these corner nooks were built as display shelves for decorative items like a vase or statue. Someday, I’d like to use this little nook as it was intended and put a large vase in it for fresh flowers.

Second Floor LandingHere’s the second floor landing, right outside my condo. It’s a narrow, dimly lit space. The original pine floors are intact and exposed here, but they desperately need to be refinished – the finish is worn down to bare wood in spots. The curved railing continues up to the third floor, so when Gregg raises it he’ll have to do it as a single piece. The stairs up to the third floor are more of the same – worn stair treads that need replacing, and lots of textured plaster.

Right now, the front stairwell isn’t pretty, but someday it’ll look great. Gregg is set to start working on it next week, so stay tuned for updates.

Looking Downstairs

Jan 072015
 January 7, 2015  Dining Room, Living Room 16 Responses »

Window Exteriors

Up until a week ago the windows in my dining room weren’t really functional. They were old aluminum windows that had exceeded their intended lifespan. Although they were double-paned, the seal between the panes had broken, leaving the windows cloudy and effectively uninsulated. Aside from being drafty and hard to see through, the windows were almost impossible to actually open. The tracks and counterweights were broken, so that one window required a herculean effort to push closed, while the other window wouldn’t stay open at all. So the windows didn’t let a lot of light in, didn’t provide insulation from the outdoors, and didn’t open – they pretty much weren’t doing any of the things that a window is supposed to do.

Old Windows

Clearly, it was time for some new windows. And while I was at it, I decided to replace another barely-functional aluminum window on the same side of the building in the living room.

Old Window

Unfortunately, the original windows on this side of the building were removed decades ago. The windows on the front of the building, on the other hand, are more or less original – likely more than 100 years old anyway. The picture above shows the front corner of the living room, with the decrepit aluminum window on the left and an original window on the right. As you can see, the original windows are double hung with six over six divided lights, a common window style in Greek Revival architecture. And as you can also see, the original, divided-light windows fit in much better with the building’s architecture and just plain look better than the newer aluminum windows.

Once I decided to replace the aluminum windows, I started looking for new windows that would approximate the look of the building’s originals. Unfortunately, real divided light windows made up of separate panes of glass are pretty rare these days. They’re actually more difficult to produce and less energy-efficient than non-divided windows.  Instead, most window manufacturers make ‘simulated divided light windows’, which have decorative grilles stuck to the inside and outside of the window and sometimes have a divider between the panes as well.

After looking at a few different options, I settled on simulated divided light windows made by Andersen. They’re not a perfect match for the building’s original windows, but they’re pretty close. The exteriors of the windows are vinyl-clad, while the interiors are painted wood. I placed an order for the windows with a local distributor, and 4 to 6 weeks later, the windows showed up.

When my contractor, Gregg, came over a few days later to install the windows, he opened the boxes and was surprised to find new construction windows inside. New windows generally come in two configurations: new construction and replacement inserts. New construction windows are designed to be attached to the surrounding wall framing, which is usually only exposed during an extensive renovation or new construction project. Replacement insert windows are installed in the existing window frame and are designed to make installation minimally invasive. In this case, I wanted replacement insert windows. But through some sort of mistake or misunderstanding, I ended up with new construction windows.

The windows were a custom order, so Andersen wouldn’t take them back. And a few days of increasingly frustrating back-and-forth phone calls with the window distributor concluded with them refusing to exchange or refund the windows. So I was stuck with them. But by this time, Gregg had a plan to install the new construction windows and was confident he could make them work. It took him longer than he expected, but he managed to get all three windows in.

New Windows Installed

New Living Room Window

Since the new windows were slightly different sizes than the old windows, Gregg had to add new interior and exterior trim. We decided to use Azek vinyl boards for the exterior trim. Unlike wood, the vinyl trim won’t require any maintenance, which is nice since the windows are two-and-a-half stories above the street. The one drawback was that Azek vinyl boards are white, while the exterior trim around the rest of the building’s windows is dark brown. The obvious solution to this problem was to paint the vinyl boards dark brown. But it turns out that painting vinyl a dark color can cause problems: vinyl expands much more than wood when heated, and a dark paint can cause vinyl to absorb so much heat from the sun that it actually buckles. The guy at the paint store helped me match the dark brown color of the existing trim without using any black pigment (he used blue instead, which won’t absorb as much heat). I used a high-bind primer called Stix before painting, and only painted the exposed sides of the trim. Here’s the trim after painting, organized in three piles, one for each window:

Painted Vinyl Trim

Once it was installed, the new trim matched the building’s existing windows and the exterior color of the new windows almost perfectly.

The interior trim consisted of 1×2 boards and a few pieces of quarter-round to cover the unfinished portions of the new windows. I patched the new trim with Ready Patch and caulked the seams so that it blended in with the existing window casing. After a fresh coat of paint, the new trim pieces were all but unnoticeable.

Now, before we check out some photos of the finished windows, it seems like a good time to take a step back and remember what the dining room looked like just a few short months ago:


The floors were dull and worn, the plaster around the fireplace was textured and lumpy, most of the room was painted a depressing brown, and, of course, the windows were falling apart (if you look closely at the window on the left, you can see that part of the upper track is falling off). This picture was taken a few months ago, part-way through the kitchen renovation. At this point I had already replaced the door to the living room, and begun painting the room.


And here’s the dining room now. The new windows make a huge difference. The room finally looks clean and finished, like a space where I’d actually want to hang out and eat a meal, like, you know, a usable dining room.

Dining Room After

Sorry for all of the dark pictures, but it’s a dark and miserable time of year, so it’s the best I could do.

Living Room Window After

Finally, here’s the new living room window. It’s a pretty close match for the room’s original windows, and it looks more natural here than the old aluminum windows  – not to mention the fact that it’s insulated and completely functional.

Living Room Window After

Nov 212014
 November 21, 2014  Living Room 8 Responses »

markel chandelier diagram

I had just finished putting the final coat of spray paint on my new, antique chandelier frame when I felt the first raindrop. I looked down at the disassembled chandelier parts, still glistening with wet paint, spread out on sheets of newspaper under the magnolia tree in front of my building. I had spent the last two hours carefully taping off the gold-painted sections of the chandelier frame, cutting away the excess painters’ tape with a razor blade, and applying a coat of clean metal primer followed by a few quick, light coats of Rustoleum ‘Bright Coat’ silver metallic spray paint. Another raindrop landed on my head. After hours of work, it would only take a few minutes for the chandelier’s still-wet metallic finish to be streaked with rain.

I gathered up the freshly painted ceiling canopy as quickly as possible, doing my best to only touch the unpainted interior, and balanced it in one hand. Then I grabbed the chandelier mast in my other hand, holding it precariously by the screw at its base. I ran inside, propped the mast against the fireplace, and put the canopy on a nearby magazine. Back outside, the rain was coming down faster, but the leafy branches of the magnolia tree seemed to have protected the main body of the chandelier from the worst of it. I picked up the chandelier body and shielded it from the rain with a sheet of newspaper as I ran for the door.

Once everything was safely inside, I spread all of the chandelier parts out on a flattened cardboard box and inspected the damage. No water droplets or streaks. So far so good. But there in the center of the chandelier body was a big thumbprint. I looked down at my hands and, sure enough, my right thumb was covered in sticky silver paint.

Because the paint’s metallic finish was so shiny – almost chrome-like – the dull, gray thumbprint stuck out like… well, like a sore thumb. The directions on the spray paint said to wait 48 hours before adding another coat. So two days later I sanded the thumbprint down with extra fine sandpaper and repainted the chandelier base with a light coat of spray paint.

chandelier mast

The thumbprint turned out to be the first in a series of things to go wrong with this project.

As I was researching paint options to recreate the chandelier’s original metallic finish, I came across a technique that involves using wood stain over metallic spray paint to mimic the look of tarnish. The idea is that the stain settles in the corners and crevices of an object, darkening those areas and providing some depth. It sounded like kind of a crazy idea, but it had worked for a few internet people so I figured I’d give it a try.

A few days after repainting the chandelier frame, I brushed some Minwax dark walnut stain on a small section of the ceiling canopy. After waiting about a minute, I tried to wipe off the excess stain with a rag. But the stain seemed to have partially dissolved the underlying metallic paint, leaving the finish dull, streaky, and sticky. It wasn’t what I had expected at all, and it certainly didn’t look like subtle tarnish. So after some more sanding and another coat of silver paint, I was back where I started. I decided that the bright, metallic finish looked just fine as it was.

Ceiling Canopy

Originally the chandelier had a two-tone finish, with most of it painted silver and a few sections highlighted with gold paint. I decided early on to stick to the chandelier’s original color scheme as I refinished it. The shiny, silver spray paint was an easy choice – it looked very similar to the original paint and gave a smooth, shiny finish – but it took me a while to find the right gold paint. I wanted a paint that I could brush on that had a realistic metallic finish. Eventually I settled on Liquid Leaf, an oil based paint that contains copper particles, which give the paint a convincing metallic sheen. It’s a really thick, buttery paint, so even though I brushed it onto the chandelier, it settled out and there weren’t any brush marks left behind.

chandelier paint

Once the frame was painted, I moved on to rewiring the chandelier. For obvious safety reasons, I didn’t want to reuse any of the original electrical components, which meant I had to find new sockets and new wire. Luckily, Home Depot had some bakelite sockets that were pretty much identical to the original 80-year-old sockets. As for the wire, I decided to use a gray, cotton-wrapped wire that would look inconspicuous against the silver chandelier. Although this was my first rewiring experience, it turned out to be fairly straight-forward: I connected short lengths of wire to each of the five sockets, and then connected the wires from the sockets to a central wire that would run to the ceiling box.

socket wiring


After the chandelier was wired and reassembled, all that was left was to actually hang the thing. The chandelier is made from cast iron and weighs about 25 pounds without the shades, so I enlisted Mara’s help to hang it. I didn’t think it would look right if we hung the chandelier directly against the ceiling, so before we got started, we added a foam, reproduction ceiling medallion that matches the one in the dining room.

Apparently ceiling fixture connections haven’t changed much in the last 80 years, so we were able to use a standard crossbar with a central thread to attach the chandelier to the ceiling electrical box. Because of the way the ceiling canopy was constructed, we could only lower the canopy a few inches, which made attaching the chandelier to the crossbar on the electrical box almost impossible. We used a tiny screw driver that just fit into the gap between the canopy and the ceiling, and we spent two hours wedging the screw driver above the canopy, trying to line up a tiny screw with the screw hole in the crossbar, dropping the screw, retrieving the screw and starting all over again. We alternated holding the chandelier and standing on the ladder trying to attach the top of the canopy to the ceiling crossbar. I was ready to give up after an hour of this, but Mara was persistent, and finally, she managed to find an angle that allowed her to line up the screws with the crossbar, and within a few minutes the chandelier was securely attached to the ceiling box.

A few days after hanging the chandelier, the (hopefully) last thing to go wrong with this project went wrong. As I switched the chandelier on one evening a few days after hanging it, there was a clicking sound and one of the bulbs went out. The bulbs were all brand new LED bulbs that are supposed to last 20 years; the wire to the socket must have popped loose, I thought. Unfortunately the wires were sealed up under the chandelier mast. At this point there was no way I was taking the entire chandelier down. So I managed to remove the body of the chandelier from the mast, only to find that all of the wires were secure – none of the wire nuts were even loose. Only then did I think to test the bulb, and sure enough, the bulb was a dud.

Part of the reason that this post has been delayed for so long, is that over the past few weeks I’ve been diligently searching for matching slip shades for the chandelier. I was hoping to share some pictures of the completed chandelier in this post, but despite my best efforts, I still only have three slip shades. I’ll post some pictures of the complete chandelier once I get my hands on two more shades. In the meantime, here’s the chandelier as it looks today:

Markel Chandelier 2

markel chandelier 1

Oct 132014
 October 13, 2014  Living Room 2 Responses »

About halfway through the kitchen renovation, my electrician added an outlet and an overhead light to the pantry closet. I had gutted the pantry down to the studs and lath, and as he worked, the electrician noticed that there was a small gap along the top of the pantry’s back wall. Through the gap, he could see into the space above the living room ceiling one room over.  For whatever reason, an overhead light fixture was never installed in the living room, so the electrician offered to put one in. Since there were no walls in the pantry, he assured me that he could run wiring for the light fixture and wall switch through the pantry, without cutting any extra holes in the living room ceiling and walls.

At this point in the renovation, the kitchen and dining room were an uninhabitable construction zone. So we spent a lot of time in the living room, using it not only as a living room, but also as a temporary kitchen, dining room, and storage area. But up until this point, we had relied on a single lamp to light the room, which meant that after dark, low mood lighting was the only option in this space. Adding an overhead light would make our lives a lot easier. I gave the electrician the go-ahead, and the next day he installed wiring for the light fixture and switch and added a temporary bare bulb fixture to the ceiling.

Bare Bulb

Almost seven months later, that temporary bare bulb fixture is still there. It’s not so much that we never got around to getting a light fixture, it’s that I couldn’t decide on just the right fixture. It’s a big room, so a chandelier made sense. But did I want a modern chandelier to keep things from feeling too stuffy? Or would a chandelier that matches the room’s traditional architecture look better? And complicating things further, I soon found out that a lot of chandeliers are really expensive – like more than $1000 expensive – and I wasn’t prepared to spend that kind of money. After a few months of this indecision, Mara was like, just buy a light fixture already – anything will look better than a bare bulb. And she had a point. So I was ready to buy this perfectly acceptable, if somewhat unexciting, chandelier from Home Depot when I came across this chandelier on eBay.

Slip Shade Chandelier

Image: Rejuvenation.com

It’s an art deco slip shade chandelier from the early 1930s made by Markel Electric Products, and it looked like a perfect fit for the living room. It’s a streamlined design, kind of like the Chrysler Building, with lots of bold lines and a few subtle, abstract leaf designs. This kind of slip shade light fixture was apparently really popular in the late 20s and early 30s. A lip around the edges of the glass slip shades allows them to rest on the chandelier frame with nothing more than gravity holding them in place. It’s an unusual design, and as far as I know, slip shade fixtures haven’t been produced since the early 40s. The overall style of the chandelier complemented some of the Greek Revival details in the living room, like the scroll design on the marble fireplace and the column-like window casing. It seemed like the ideal light fixture for the space.

Unfortunately, the seller was asking over $1000 for the chandelier. So I passed on it. But soon another identical chandelier showed up on eBay. It was also too expensive, but I started to wonder if these chandeliers are more common than I had previously thought. And then after some persistent searching, I began to notice parts of the same chandelier listed on eBay – a slip shade here, a ceiling canopy there. So I decided, against my better judgement, that I could buy all of the parts I needed on eBay and then refurbish and rebuild a complete chandelier for much less than it would cost to buy the same chandelier outright.

I found the chandelier frame and mast first. It was pretty beat up, but it would do. Sold. And luckily the same seller had listed the matching ceiling canopy separately, so I bought that as well, for a combined total of about $50.

Chandelier Parts

These are theoretically all of the parts I need to put the chandelier frame together. As you can see, the original metallic paint finish is in pretty rough shape, so I’m planning to repaint everything with silver and gold metallic paint. But aside from the finish, the frame is in pretty good condition — it’s made out of heavy cast iron, so there’s not a lot that can go wrong there. The chandelier’s 80-year-old electrical components are a completely different story.

Old Wiring

This decrepit, octopus-like bundle of wires is all that remains of the chandelier’s original wiring. I don’t want to mess around with ancient wiring that may or may not burst into flames the moment an electrical current is run through it, so I’m planning to buy new sockets and completely rewire the chandelier. This shouldn’t be too difficult, since all of the wiring sits exposed in the bowl of the chandelier.

All that I’m missing at this point is a complete set of five glass slip shades. The slip shades I need are particular to this light fixture. And since they’re made of glass and prone to breaking, they seem to be harder to come by, and more expensive, than the chandelier frame. So far, I’ve managed to buy three shades on eBay, ranging in price from $25 to $35 each. There are actually reproduction slip shades for this fixture available for $65 each, but I’d prefer to save some money and buy old shades. And in the meantime, while I’m scouring eBay for shades, I’ll get started painting and rewiring the chandelier frame.

Oct 052014
 October 5, 2014  Uncategorized 1 Response »


I was interviewed a few weeks ago for a story in the Boston Globe that features my kitchen renovation. The story is titled “DIY Problems? Solved!” and it appears in this Sunday’s Globe. Now, in truth my kitchen renovation was really only partially a DIY project, but there were definitely some setbacks and challenges along the way, which are highlighted in the article. There’s also some interesting perspectives from a few contractors and Kit Stansley of DIY Diva about the benefits and challenges of undertaking DIY work on your home. Check it out here.

Sep 222014
 September 22, 2014  Exterior 14 Responses »

The front door is finally done, and it took most of the summer so I won’t draw it out any longer. Here’s the repaired and repainted front door:

Front Door After

Let’s take a look at where I started a few months ago:

Front Door Before

Front Door Before 2

The original paint on the door and surrounding side lights and transom was chipped and flaking and had even worn down to bare wood in places. Long slivers of crumbly glazing putty were peeling away from the transom window panes. A few of the glass panes had lost so much glazing putty that they looked like they might fall out of the window frame if they encountered a stiff breeze.  Clearly something needed to be done. So naturally I spent a few weeks agonizing over what color to paint the door before I started any actual work.

As you can see, I eventually settled on dark blue for the door and off white for the trim. These colors aren’t all that different from the original light blue-gray trim and medium blue door. Even though my neighbors pretty much gave me free reign to choose whatever colors I wanted, I didn’t want to upset anyone by doing anything too crazy. So I more or less stuck with the existing color scheme. I considered painting the door yellow after so many of you suggested it, and if I owned the entire building I might have gone for it. But in the end, something dark and traditional seemed like a safer choice.

Once I decided on dark blue, I had to pick a specific shade of dark blue. I’m easily influenced by the names and descriptions of paint colors, so when I began looking through Benjamin Moore colors online, I was immediately drawn to “Hale Navy,” which Benjamin Moore describes as, “a timeless classic, this deeply saturated shade of navy blue evokes rich maritime traditions and storied exploits at sea.” Do I want my front door to recall storied exploits at sea? Well now that you mention it, yes, yes I do. I was sold. Until I came across “Washington Blue,” the description for which reads, “suggesting gentility and culture, this deep, lush navy blue is based on the color created by hand-grinding Prussian blue in oil.” You had me at gentility and culture.

But after I picked up paint chips in a few different shades of dark blue at the paint store and held them up to the door, the Washington Blue looked too green in comparison to the blue-gray portico, and Hale Navy didn’t look dark enough. Instead I chose Polo Blue, which despite its preppy name, is a simple, inky blue-black. For the side lights and transom I chose French Canvas, a grayish off white that echoes the color of the building’s mortar.

Before I could start painting the door and trim, there was a long list of prep work to complete. I began by reglazing the transom window. I then moved on to the soul-crushingly-tedious work of scraping away every last bit of loose and peeling paint. Whoever originally painted the door apparently didn’t believe in the merits of priming raw wood before painting. So there was a seemingly never-ending amount of loose paint that needed to be scraped – a boring, awful process that took forever.

Once all of the loose paint was gone, I washed everything down with a sponge and soapy water followed by clean water. I let everything dry for an hour or so and then primed. I used a primer called Peel Stop Triple Thick made by Zinsser. As the name suggests, this primer is really thick. It’s designed to even out the surface of weathered wood, and again, as the name suggests, it’s supposed to prevent patches of old paint that are still adhered to the wood from peeling further. It goes on smoothly, and judging by how well it stuck to my hands, it binds tightly to the underlying paint and wood, but we’ll see how it holds up over time. I used an exterior oil based primer to prime the new glazing on the transom window (since the glazing itself is oil-based, an oil-based primer is needed to seal it).

After everything was primed, I caulked all of the seams in the trim. The side lights, transom, and trim had never been caulked before, which allowed water to seep into the cracks between pieces of trim, and was probably part of the reason why the trim was weathering so poorly. The caulk will help protect the trim from the elements, and as an added benefit it gives the whole entryway a more finished, seamless look.

Caulked Entryway

The bottom of the door and the edges of the door frame had sustained some pretty serious gouges over the years, so before I moved on to painting, I repaired the corners with wood filler. I used WoodEpox, which is a two part epoxy. It’s really easy to work with – just grab approximately equal sized chunks of each component and mash them together in your hands (preferably while wearing gloves). Then press the paste-like epoxy into the gouge, leave it to dry for a few hours, sand, and paint. WoodEpox is supposed to stay in place even on exterior wood that expands and contracts with changing weather, so we’ll see how it holds up. Here’s a corner of the doorframe that I repaired after applying the wood filler (left) and after sanding (right).

Wood Filler

Finally, I painted everything, which ended up being one of the quickest and most enjoyable parts of the entire project. I used Benjamin Moore’s exterior latex paint in soft gloss. It’s a nice, thick paint, and I only needed two coats to fully cover the door and trim. I considered Benjamin Moore’s “Grand Entrance” paints, which are their specialty front door paints. But the ”Grand Entrance” paint is oil-based and the guy at the paint store convinced me that latex paint is just as durable as oil paint and, unlike oil paint, it won’t yellow over time.

The hinges on the door were completely rusted out, so once both sides of the door were painted, I took the whole thing down and removed the hinges, sanded them, and painted them with Rustoleum rusty metal primer and enamel topcoat. There are these big, rusted, iron bolt and washer things clamped to the granite on either side of the steps, so I decided to spray paint them while I was at it. I used a plastic drop cloth and painters’ tape to seal off the granite while I painted.

Stair Bolt

The door is solid wood and it’s really heavy, so Mara and I had a miserable time rehanging it. Since it opens onto the steps, it’s impossible to balance the door in the doorframe while screwing the hinges into the doorjamb. Instead I had to hold the door and try to maneuver it into place while Mara screwed the hinges into the jamb. We got it eventually, but it was an ordeal.

Front Door After

So there it is, the finished door. I still need to order a brass address plaque, and I’d also like to get a pair of brass toe kicks, but otherwise it’s done. I think it turned out nicely, and the neighbors seem to like it too, so we’ll call it a success. And even though I didn’t use “Hale Navy” in the end, the dark blue door with brass hardware surrounded by white trim has a definite maritime character, which seems fitting for a building located on the harbor in East Boston, a neighborhood that has historically been associated with the shipbuilding industry.


Sep 052014
 September 5, 2014  Living Room 6 Responses »


A few years ago, in her final semester of college, Mara took an intro studio art course. As part of the course she visited the Nature Lab at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design. The RISD Nature Lab is chock full of the kind of stuff you’d expect to find in a natural history museum. The walls are lined with glass cases and cabinets filled with collections of mounted butterflies, animal skulls, seashells, mineral specimens, and pressed plants. Taxidermied birds perch atop the cabinets and fully articulated human skeletons hang from the ceiling. But unlike a natural history museum, the Nature Lab is set up as a studio art space where visitors are encouraged to take specimens out of their cases to examine them, sketch them, and interact with them. While she was there, Mara sketched a rodent skeleton and a series of skeletal forearms from various animals.

Inspired by her time at the RISD Nature Lab and the emerging turn-of-the-century-reading-room vibe in our living room,  Mara decided we should hang some framed, pressed flowers on the walls. There are a lot of blank walls in the condo, which leave the place looking unfinished. Artwork can be expensive and it’s difficult to find just the right piece of art. So when Mara suggested hanging some pressed flowers in the office alcove off the living room, it sounded like a great, inexpensive way to add some interest to the space.

Collecting botanical pressings and other natural ‘specimens’ and displaying them in the home was a popular pastime in the late 1800s. But in the past few years, sciencey decor (and I think botanical pressings fall under this category) seems to have become pretty trendy once again. I’m not sure why collecting and displaying terrariums full of succulents, lab glassware, and other home decor that evokes nature and science has become so popular. Maybe it’s nostalgia for a bygone time when gentlemen scientists sought to understand the mysteries of the natural world simply by collecting, categorizing, and preserving bits and pieces of it. Or maybe it’s related to the revival  of other late-19th century pursuits, like brewing your own beer, keeping your own chickens, or growing your own mustache. In any case, we thought a few framed pressed plants might look nice hanging over the desk in the office alcove. And although we aren’t trying to recreate the room as it existed at some point in the past, there’s something appealing about the fact that framed botanical pressings wouldn’t have looked out of place hanging in the same room a century ago.

We collected flowers for pressing around my childhood home in Connecticut while visiting my family a few weeks ago. Most of the flowers available to us were wildflowers – some might call them weeds – and we looked for plants and flowers that weren’t too thick or fleshy. It turns out that plants that are too thick don’t press well and a lot of detail can be lost if the plant is mashed to a pulp as it’s pressed. Once we got the flowers (and one fern) home we placed them between sheets of parchment paper and slipped them between the pages of a few large books. We piled a bunch of other books on top of these books to make sure that the flowers were thoroughly flattened, and then we left them alone for two weeks.

I work as a chemist and also write a science blog, so it should come as no surprise that pressed plants aren’t my first experience with science decor. For the past few years I’ve kept a molecular model – currently isoamyl acetate, the primary flavor component in Juicy Fruit Gum – on the living room mantel. I spend a lot of time thinking about molecules at work, and I think the 3-dimensional geometry of many molecules is beautiful in its own right. But I also think molecular models are just plain cool. They’re simple representations of our achievements in understanding how the world works on an atomic and molecular level. The appeal of pressed plants, on the other hand, is mostly aesthetic. But at the same time, they also recall the early days of biological sciences when observing and documenting differences among living things gave way to questions about why those differences exist and how they arose.

Isoamyl Acetate

After two weeks, we took the flowers, which were now flat and dry, out of the books. We picked up some inexpensive frames and some watercolor paper to use as a backing at a craft store. Mara cut the backing paper to size and carefully attached the pressed flowers to the paper with Elmer’s Wood Glue applied with a toothpick. She then added a few thin strips of florists’ tape across the stems and secured the tape with a few dabs of wood glue. Apparently plant pressings are traditionally mounted using thin strips of tape, but in our case the tape was more decorative than functional.

We used this website to help identify our flowers and fern, and we were disappointed to learn that the names of some of our flowers – common soapwort, fleabane – weren’t all that elegant or exciting. Nevertheless, Mara wrote the common and latin names of the plants on small rectangles of watercolor paper, which she then glued to the paper backing. (She was worried about messing up while writing directly on the paper backing, which at this point would have been a tragic turn of events since the pressed plants were already glued down). Labeling the plants in this way, we felt, gave the pressings some botanical legitimacy.

Finally, before framing the mounted pressings, Mara sealed each pressed plant with three coats of clear, matte spray fixitive – the same stuff used to prevent finished charcoal drawings from smudging. We weren’t sure if sealing the pressings was necessary, but figured it couldn’t hurt and might help prevent the colors of the stems and flowers from fading.

Pressed Flowers

In the end, the framed pressings look great hanging over the desk. Up to this point we only had prints and photographs on the walls, so it’s nice to bring something natural inside to keep things from feeling too sterile. But the best thing about this project might be the price – we spent a total of about $30 on the three pressings, most of which went toward the frames. A few months ago while looking at kitchen cabinet hardware, I noticed that Restoration Hardware was selling some similar framed botanical pressings starting at $199. Granted, the Restoration Hardware pressings were collected 100 years ago in Sweden, but it was much cheaper and a lot more fun to make our own.

Pressed Fern

Pressed Bellflower

Pressed Soapwort


Aug 012014
 August 1, 2014  Living Room 7 Responses »

I started working on my building’s front door fully intending to finish painting the door and the surrounding trim over the course of a few weekends. But now, a month later, the door remains completely unpainted. There are a number of good and not-so-good reasons for the snail-like pace of this project. Earlier this month, some hot, swampy weather settled in over Boston, leaving me unmotivated to work outside, or to exert myself in any way, really. And then, I spent the last week and a half on a combined vacation/business trip in Italy and Slovenia. So while I continue to make slow progress on the front door, I thought I’d update you on some recent changes in the living room.

Over the past few weeks and months, I’ve begun to formulate a plan to convert the condo’s front room from a staging area for the kitchen renovation into an actual living room filled with the kind of stuff you’d expect to find in a living room – seating, lighting, artwork on the walls, maybe a bookcase. A key part of this plan involved finding a rug for the room. I imagined that the rug would define a seating area and help separate the living room from the office, which is just an alcove on one side of the room. The architecture of the room is very formal, so I wanted a classic rug that would fit in with some of the room’s fancier elements. But I also wanted a rug that would offer some color and interest. An antique Persian or Caucasian rug seemed like it would fit the bill.

So I began scouring eBay for a large, affordable, antique rug, which, I quickly realized, was like searching for Bigfoot. Antique Persian rugs, it turns out, can be very expensive. As you might expect, rugs in pristine condition command top dollar, while slightly worn rugs are a little more affordable. Antique, hand-knotted rugs are hard-wearing and can last for generations, so even worn rugs have many years of use ahead of them with proper care. And I actually like the look of old, worn rugs. So I narrowed my search to rugs with areas of low or missing pile, but I drew the line at rugs with large holes or serious damage.

After a series of crushing losses in which I was outbid on rugs in the final seconds of auctions, I came across a promising rug with a low starting bid. The seller didn’t seem to know anything about the rug beyond its questionable provenance – the listing stated that it was found “hidden away at an old, Southern estate” (which brought to mind a giant, decaying plantation house shrouded by towering oak trees draped in Spanish moss). The rug was about the right size, and it looked pleasantly worn-in with low pile – it seemed like a perfect fit for the living room. So I stalked the listing for a few days, waited until the final moments of the auction, placed my bid, and won the rug for $88, which seemed like a bargain since I had resigned myself to spending three times as much for a decent rug.

Here’s the rug after it arrived and I unpackaged it and spread it out in the living room:

Living Room Rug

I know very little about Persian rugs, but the rug appears to be pretty old and hand-knotted, possibly in the Herati style. It’s covered in an intricate, dense pattern of geometric lines, angles, and floral shapes with a medallion in the center. The edges are slightly abraded, and the rug could use a cleaning, but otherwise, it’s in pretty good shape. It gives the living room the feeling of an old library reading room, which I like.

Along with the rug, we also got a new sofa. When I moved into the condo, I brought a love seat sofa with me. This half-size sofa was a perfect fit for my old, 400-square-foot apartment, but in the new, much-larger living room, the proportions were all wrong – it looked like a piece of doll furniture. So after looking at a bunch of different sofas that fell within our price range, we settled on the Dekalb Sofa from West Elm, which at 85 inches long, is big enough to fit the room.

On the other hand, since the condo is located on the second floor at the top of  a narrow, curved staircase, the sofa was also potentially too big to fit up the stairs. So before placing the order, I carefully measured the stairwell. The stairs were wide enough to accommodate the narrowest dimension of the sofa with a few inches to spare, but I wasn’t completely sure that the sofa would fit around the curved corner at the top of the stairs. After some more careful measuring, I was about 95% sure that the sofa would fit, which, since I really liked the sofa, was good enough for me. So we ordered the sofa. West Elm was having a 15% off sofas sale at the time, and when I went to the store to see the sofa in person, they offered to reduce the price by an additional 10% to cover the cost of shipping. So, all in all, the price was pretty reasonable. And when the sofa finally arrived, 10 to 12 weeks later, the delivery guys carried it straight upstairs and around the curved corner without any trouble.

The New Sofa

It’s a big, comfortable sofa with plenty of room to spread out, but it doesn’t have the overstuffed, globular appearance of many larger sofas. We chose a medium-gray linen upholstery, and the lighter color keeps the sofa from looking like a giant black hole in the center of the room. Before the sofa arrived, I wasn’t sure how best to position it in the room. There were two obvious options: floating lengthwise in the center or the room, facing the fireplace, or positioned widthwise just in front of the bowfront windows, facing the entrance to the room. But once the sofa arrived, it was clear that floating the sofa in front of the fireplace made the most sense. It fit the proportions of the room, which is longer than it is wide, and helped to divide the office alcove from the living room space.

New Sofa Position

New Sofa

So, the living room is starting to come together. But there are still a few things on my wish list for the room: a pair of club chairs to go in front of the bow front windows, a barrister bookcase, a side table or two, a lamp, a giant piece of art for over the fireplace, and an overhead light fixture – maybe an art deco chandelier if I can find one for a reasonable price.

Jul 032014
 July 3, 2014  Exterior 8 Responses »

When we left off last time, I was agonizing over paint colors for my building’s front door, but I hadn’t actually made any progress toward painting the door. (Thanks, by the way, to all of you who offered color suggestions – I still haven’t bought paint, so you’ll have to wait for another post to see what color(s) I end up choosing.) This past week I finally started in on the long list of prep work that needs to be done before I can actually paint the door.

I decided to work from the top of the entryway down, so the first order of business was reglazing the transom window above the door. The window sits about 12 feet above the front steps, making it completely inaccessible with the short step ladder we had on hand. I ended up buying a new, 22-foot multi-position ladder to reach the window. Each side of the ladder can be adjusted independently, allowing it to be safely positioned on the steps. With all of the tall ceilings and narrow staircases in my building, I have a feeling this ladder will be getting some serious use even after this front door project is finished.

Ladder on Steps

When I finally got an up-close look at the transom window, I found that it was a mess of cracked, crumbling, and missing glazing putty. Up until a few months ago when I reglazed a salvaged french door, I had no idea what glazing putty was. It turns out it’s an oil-based putty with the consistency of bread dough that was used to secure and seal panes of glass to the frames of old divided light windows. It’s no longer used on modern windows, most of which are not true divided light windows with separate glass panes. As glazing putty dries out over time, it can crack and flake away from the window, providing an opportunity for water to seep into the frame and rot the window. So every few years the putty needs to be replaced. And the putty on the transom window over the front door was long overdue for replacement.

The putty was in such bad shape that I was able to remove most of it by gently scraping it away from the window panes with a putty knife. I was worried about cracking the glass, so I was careful not to get too vigorous with my scraping. I removed the last, stubborn bits of old putty with a heat gun – the heat softened the putty to the point where I could easily scrape it off the window. If you ever find yourself reglazing a window, it’s technically possible to leave some of the old putty behind so long as it’s securely attached to the window, but it’s easier to apply the new putty without any of the old putty in the way. As I scraped away the old putty, I uncovered the glazing points – little metal triangles stuck into the wooden dividers around the window panes that act as clips to hold the glass in place. I made sure to keep all of the glazing points in place to prevent the glass from falling out of the window while I worked. Once I’d removed the putty and scraped away some of the surrounding loose paint, I was left with this:

Glazing Putty Removed

Glazing Putty Removed Close Up

There seems to be some disagreement about whether it’s necessary to prime the exposed wood dividers before reglazing the window, but I figured it couldn’t hurt. So I taped off the windows and primed the dividers with an oil-based primer (this is important since the putty is also oil based). Once the primer was dry, I finally got down to the business of actually glazing the window. Most guides to glazing windows suggest removing the window from its frame and glazing it on a horizontal surface. That wasn’t really an option here since the transom window is built-in. So I glazed the window in place, which wasn’t so bad, although standing on a ladder working with my hands over my head for a few hours turned out to be exhausting.

Glazing technique is pretty straightforward, but it takes some practice to get the hang of it. I worked on one side of a pane at a time, packing the glazing putty into the corners between the glass and the wood divider with a putty knife. Then I ran the putty knife along the edge of the divider, removing excess putty and creating a sloped edge. The putty is forgiving – it can be smoothed out with a finger, or scraped out and reapplied if it becomes mangled beyond repair. Here’s the window after I finished glazing around all 10 of the panes:

Reglazed Transom Window

Glazing Close-up

Once the putty has dried, I’ll clean off the oily residue on the windows left behind by the putty (the smudges in the pictures above). The instructions on the glazing putty suggest waiting 7 to 14 days for the putty to dry before priming and painting, but if the hot, swampy weather we’ve had in Boston for the past few days keeps up, it’ll probably be at least two weeks before the putty has dried enough to be painted. In the meantime, I’ll continue scraping the loose paint off of the door and surrounding trim.