Nov 212014
 November 21, 2014  Living Room 7 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


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 13 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 5 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.

Jun 162014
 June 16, 2014  Exterior 21 Responses »

Front Door

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point over the course of this past winter the front door to my building went from looking acceptable to looking downright shabby. The building is perched on a hill next to Boston Harbor, and it gets pretty windy in these parts – every winter the front door is battered with snow and ice, and years of this wintry abuse has taken its toll on the door’s paint job. It’s worn down to the primer coat in places, and the paint around the inset panels is chipped and peeling. The surrounding side lights and transom window aren’t in much better shape.

The front door provides visitors and passersby with their first impression of the building, so I think it’s important to keep it looking decent. And of course some regular maintenance will go a long way toward preventing costly repairs down the road. With this in mind, I volunteered to repair, repaint, and generally spruce up the front door and surrounding trim. Here’s what needs to be done:

  1. The transom window needs to be reglazed. I’ll remove all of the old, cracked and failing glazing putty from around each glass pane, prime the wood dividers, and apply new glazing putty. I have some glazing experience – I spot reglazed the salvaged french door I used between the dining room and living room last year – so hopefully this part goes smoothly.
  2. Scrape/strip all of the peeling paint from the door and trim. I did a quick lead paint test on the door and trim, and, interestingly, the test was negative. There’s only one or two coats of paint on the door and trim, which suggests that it was completely replaced within the past 20 or 30 years. But the fact that there’s no lead paint here means that I’m free to scrape off the peeling paint rather than use a wet stripping method, which will make my job much easier.
  3. Prime everything. I’ll use a shellac-based primer to spot prime any knots or stains. The new glazing putty will need to be primed with an oil-based primer, and I’ll use an all-purpose exterior primer for everything else.
  4. Caulk all of the joints and seams in the trim.
  5. The hinges on the door are really rusty, so I’ll remove them, prime them with Rustoleum rusty metal primer, and spray paint them black.
  6. Paint everything

The only thing left to decide is paint color. As long as I don’t choose anything too weird, my neighbors don’t have strong feelings about the front door color. The giant, sandstone portico surrounding the front door is painted a medium blue-gray. It matches the sills and lintels around the building’s windows, and I have no plans to repaint it. So I’d like to find a color that complements the portico. My first thought was to paint the door and trim a glossy, formal black, or a dark navy, but I couldn’t quite picture how it would look. So this past weekend Mara and I headed across the harbor to Boston’s South End for some inspiration.

Boston South End Row Houses

South End Union Park

The South End is the largest Victorian brick row house district in the country. It’s made up of block upon block of impeccably restored row houses that were built at around the same time as my building in the mid to late 19th century. And many of the row houses in the South End are built in a very similar style to my building, with bow fronts and some Greek Revival architectural elements. It seemed like a good place to check out a variety of different front door colors that might suit my building. So let’s check out some doors, shall we?
Turquoise DoorA brightly colored door like this turquoise door looks great with white trim, but I don’t think it would be right for my building.

ShuttersA lot of buildings in the South End have historical or replica shutters, which made me wish my building still had shutters. But that’s another (much more expensive) project for another time.

Wood Door

Blue and Red Doors

Green Door

Red Door

Unlike my building’s front door, most of the doors we saw were double doors without a lot of surrounding trim. This single red door with side lights and a transom was the most similar door we saw. The door and trim are painted different colors, which made me wonder if I should keep the door and trim different colors on my building as well. Also, I think we may need a planter of some sort by the front door for flowers and/or a little topiary thing.

Front Door 2

Seeing all of these nicely restored entranceways reinforced the fact that my front door is looking pretty crappy. But it also made me even more unsure of what color to paint the door.

East Boston Row House

Finally, here’s a photo of a row house just down the street from my building in East Boston, taken soon after it was built. This building is very similar to mine and was probably built at around the same time. Obviously, the photo is black and white, so it’s impossible to tell what colors were used, but it looks like the front door was painted a dark color, possibly black, which makes me think I should stick with a dark color for my front door. I’m currently leaning toward a dark navy door but I’m still not sure whether I should paint the surrounding trim a different color. So I’m officially soliciting opinions – what color should I paint my front door?

Jun 052014
 June 5, 2014  Bedroom 19 Responses »

The very first project I undertook in the condo was repairing and painting the bedroom walls. When I first moved in, the entire bedroom was painted a nauseating, algae green color. Even the room’s shiplap wainscoting was inexplicably painted the same eggshell green as the walls. Waking up surrounded by this color made me feel like I was drowning in a bowl of split pea soup.

Bedroom Before Clearly, the bedroom needed some fresh paint. But it turned out that this terrible color was just the start of the problems with the bedroom walls. Under the green paint there was a layer of textured wallpaper, and under the wallpaper was the original plaster. In many places, the walls felt soft and squishy. I didn’t know much about plaster walls at the time, but I was pretty sure they weren’t supposed to be squishy. After a little research, I discovered that the squishiness was a sign that the plaster was detached from the underlying structure of the wall.

When the wall was originally constructed, wet plaster was pressed into the lath – a series of horizontal wood slats running across the studs and spaced about 1/4 inch apart. The wet plaster was smooshed into the gaps between the lath, and when it hardened, it was held against the lath by the ridges of plaster, or ‘plaster keys’, that filled these gaps. But as the building shifted and settled over time, some of the plaster keys broke, leaving large sections of the plaster wall floating unsecured. So before I could paint the room, I needed to strip the wallpaper and stabilize these loose sections of plaster.

Now, before I show you a bunch of frankly horrifying pictures detailing the process of repairing and painting the walls, here’s a picture of the room today.

Bedroom After

Everything turned out ok. I opted for white paint – Benjamin Moore White Dove – for the walls. And I painted the wainscoting the same semigloss white as the trim. Everything is nice and clean and bright.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. The first order of business was to strip the old wallpaper. There are a number of ways to strip wallpaper – steaming and scraping, or perforating and coating with stripping solution are two of the most common methods – and you can find plenty of youtube videos of people employing various wallpaper stripping methods and making it look easy. But I soon found that my wallpaper was particularly uncooperative. It was a thick, textured paper that had been covered in several layers of paint, and it wasn’t prepared to release its decades-old grip on the walls without a fight. Although it was loose and bubbling in places, it clung to the wall with unrelenting tenacity in others. In the end, I used a 5-in-1 painter’s tool and brute force to scrape the paper off of the wall. For the most part, the wallpaper came down in frustratingly tiny bits and pieces, but every once in a while a big, immensely satisfying sheet of paper would peel away from the wall all at once. As the wallpaper came down it left behind a film of ancient paper and adhesive residue that looked something like this.

Wallpaper Residue

I soaked the walls with DIF wallpaper stripper before scraping off these final, stubborn bits of paper and adhesive. As a side note, windshield washing fluid or soapy water is cheaper than the DIF stripper, and I’ve heard it works just as well.

Once all of the wallpaper was down, I could finally see the underlying plaster, and it didn’t look good. In fact, the whole room looked much worse than when I’d started. The plaster was cracked and crumbling in places. A few areas had been patched with plaster of paris that appeared to have been applied with a butter knife. There were even a few small holes where chunks of plaster had fallen out of the wall. I began to wonder if stripping the wallpaper and uncovering this mess had been a mistake, but there was no turning back now.

Repairing damaged plaster is slow, agonizing work. In many cases it’s more time consuming than tearing out a plaster wall and replacing it with new sheetrock. I never really considered this option because I really like old plaster walls – their trowel marks and other irregularities are part of the charm of an older house. Plaster also offers some practical advantages over sheetrock: it’s inhospitable to mold, provides superior sound insulation, and is more durable than sheetrock. And on top of everything, I wasn’t really in the mood to gut my bedroom since I was actually living in it at the time.

So I was stuck figuring out how to repair my crumbling plaster walls. As far as I know, there are two methods for repairing damaged plaster, both of which accomplish the same result of reattaching the plaster to the underlying lath. The first and most common method involves attaching the plaster to the lath using screws and special washers called plaster buttons, which distribute the pressure of the screw and prevent the surrounding plaster from cracking. The second method involves using construction adhesive to glue the plaster to the lath. In both cases, the wall needs to be patched and skim coated to a smooth finish after the plaster has been stabilized.

I came across this incredibly detailed and very helpful article on the adhesive method of plaster repair, and decided to give it a try. If you’re looking for a full break down of what was involved here, I’d recommend reading the article. But essentially, I drilled a bunch of little holes in the wall, injected construction adhesive into the holes with a caulk gun, and temporarily clamped the plaster to the lath with screws and washers while the adhesive dried.

Reattaching Plaster

24 hours later, once the adhesive had dried, I removed the screws and washers and patched the holes with plaster of paris. I also took this opportunity to patch some of the areas of missing plaster with more plaster of paris. With the plaster firmly glued to the lath, the walls no longer felt squishy, but they were still uneven and a little lumpy. To achieve a smooth, flat surface, I needed to apply a skim coat, or a thin finish coat, of joint compound to the entire wall.

But before I moved on to skim coating, I primed the walls with Gardz Sealer. Gardz has the consistency of watered-down Elmers Glue and dries to a hard, shiny surface. It seals in any leftover wallpaper residue and provides a stable surface for skim coating. It probably wasn’t necessary here, since I cleaned off the walls pretty well, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Next, I covered all of the cracks in the walls with fiberglass mesh tape. The idea here is that the fiberglass mesh isolates the finish skim coat from the underlying damaged plaster and prevents the crack from reappearing.

Fiberglass Mesh Tape

I used premixed, lightweight joint compound – the kind that comes in a bucket – to skim coat the walls. This was my first skim coating experience, and it took me a while to get the hang of it. The real breakthrough came when I started using the Magic Trowel, which, despite its name, cannot be used to build enchanted walls. In reality it’s nothing more and nothing less than a big, heavy-duty squeegee. I don’t possess the skill to manipulate plaster with an actual hawk and trowel. So instead, I applied a rough coat of watered-down joint compound to the walls using a drywall knife and a paint roller. And then, while the joint compound was still wet, I ran the Magic Trowel over the wall to smooth everything out and remove any excess joint compound. Here’s what the back wall of the bedroom looked like partway through this process.

Halfway Through Skim Coating

I had to apply two coats of joint compound to get a smooth, flat surface. Once the final coat of joint compound was dry, I used a drywall knife to scrape off all of the little ridges and high points left behind by the Magic Trowel. Very little additional sanding was needed. I finished the skim coat by burnishing the raw joint compound. The process of burnishing the walls involved lightly dampening the dried joint compound with water from a spray bottle and running a drywall knife over the surface of the wall with firm pressure at a steep angle in an asterisk pattern – up, down, side to side, and diagonally. This process compressed the joint compound, and the result was a hard, smooth, slightly shiny surface that looks and feels a lot like the original plaster.

after skim coating 1

after skim coating 2

The whole process of repairing, patching, and skim coating the bedroom walls took me several months of working evenings and weekends. So by the time I was finally ready to paint the room, it felt like I’d reached the home stretch. I primed the walls with all-purpose water-based primer before applying two coats of paint. I’ve always thought that painting was tedious and boring, but at this point it was actually fun and satisfying, if only because it went so much faster than skim coating. After the walls and trim were painted, I disassembled all of the rusty, beat-up baseboard radiator covers, primed them with metal primer, and painted them to match the trim.

Bedroom After 2

Bedroom After 3

So here it is, the fully repaired and painted bedroom. The room still feels unfinished. The door on the left in the picture above leads to the building’s rear stairwell. It’s currently a cheap, hollow-core door, but I’m planning to replace it with the solid, four panel door that’s leaning against it in the picture. It’s the same panel door that was used to seal off the condo’s front room. I’d also like to reconsider the room’s layout and find some new nightstands. And maybe the bed needs a headboard? And of course we now have a lot of big, empty, immaculately smooth walls in this room that could use some artwork.

Bedroom Light Fixture I also replaced the overhead light fixture with this classy Art Deco shade I found on ebay. The fixture itself is from Schoolhouse Electric. Strangely enough, I’ve found that Art Deco stuff nicely complements my building’s Greek Revival architecture. Although the two styles were popular at very different times, they both emphasize bold linear designs.

Bedroom Floors

One of my favorite aspects of the room is the floor. I had it refinished this past year and it turned out beautifully. It’s heart pine and each floor board runs the full length of the room. It reminds me of a ship’s deck. But the floor isn’t the only thing about the room that reminds me of a ship.

Bedroom View Day

The bedroom is located in the back of the building, which juts out toward Boston harbor like the bow of a ship. Here’s the view out one of the bedroom windows. It’s a pretty impressive view, even though there’s a telephone pole in the middle of it. There are actually water views out the windows on either side of the bedroom, and these views of the harbor and the Boston skyline behind it are my favorite aspect of the room, and maybe my favorite part of the entire condo. I live in a quiet neighborhood, but it’s close enough to downtown that I can lie in bed at night and see the city lights out the window.

Bedroom View Night


May 062014
 May 6, 2014  Dining Room 6 Responses »

This past winter was brutal here in Boston. From November through mid-March it was dark, and windy, and really, really cold. There was lots of talk of polar vortices. The entire city seemed to fall into a cold-induced malaise. People shuffled to and from work, but otherwise the streets were mostly empty. For months, my neighborhood looked like a windswept arctic wasteland. It was so cold for so long that one of the downspouts on my building got backed up with ice and burst under the pressure.

I spent most of the winter holed up inside, bundled in sweaters and sweatshirts, doing my best to stay warm. I kept the thermostat set between 60 and 65 ºF while I was home to try to save money on my heating bill. But despite my best efforts, each month the heating bill was nearly double what it had been the previous year. This increase was caused by some combination of higher gas prices and unrelentingly cold outside temperatures.

I tried to turn the thermostat down when I wasn’t home, but I was reluctant to set it too low because I didn’t want to come home to a frigid apartment. My thermostat at the time was actually programmable, but it was about 25 years old, and the user interface was so complicated that my only attempt to set a program was disastrous. The heat came on at odd hours, and it took me a few days of trial and error to return the thermostat to manual operation.

Old Chronotherm III Thermostat

So at some point last winter I decided to get a new thermostat. I wanted to save money on my heating bill, but I didn’t want to invest a lot of time or energy in the process. What I needed was a programmable thermostat that was really easy to use. The Nest Thermostat seemed to fit the bill. Not only is it programmable, but with regular use it programs itself. It also connects to wi-fi, so you can use your phone or computer to adjust the temperature from work, or from across the country, or from the couch in the living room. The one sticking point was the price – $250 seemed a little spendy for a thermostat. But then I found out that my gas utility company, National Grid, offers an instant $100 rebate for the Nest Thermostat. Sold.

Even though I got the thermostat a few months ago, I didn’t install it right away. I was afraid I would mess up the installation and end up without heat. But by last week the heat hadn’t come on in a few days, and I was pretty sure spring had finally arrived, so I swapped out the old thermostat. Installing the Nest was pretty straightforward – if you’ve ever changed a light fixture, you shouldn’t have any trouble.

The thermostat is in the dining room, which I painted pale gray (BM Moonshine) this past year. I didn’t bother to take the old thermostat down, I just painted around it. The dining room walls were light brown before I painted, so when I removed the old, bulky thermostat I expected to find the same light brown paint underneath it. Instead I found more gray paint. And it wasn’t just any gray, it was pretty much identical to the gray I used to paint the rest of the room a few months ago.

Old New Paint

Here you can see the rectangular outline of the old thermostat. (Ignore for a moment the fact that the wall is covered in a million layers of paint and wallpaper.) Outside of the rectangle is the new gray paint and inside is the old gray paint. In case you’re wondering, there’s no evidence of the old paint anywhere else in the room, so I chose the new paint without ever seeing the old paint color. The whole thing was a little freaky. There was even an outline of an old circular thermostat that was the same size as the new Nest. It felt like I’d been unconsciously recreating the room as it existed at some point in the past – sort of like I was mediating an architectural reincarnation.

After spending a few minutes thinking about what this discovery might mean for the existence of free will, I spackled over the old paint and the outline of the old thermostat. Once the spackle dried, I sanded, primed, and once again painted the wall pale gray.

Thermostat Spackle

The rest of the installation was easy. I screwed the Nest back panel into the wall – it even has a handy built-in level – popped the wires into place (no wire nuts required), and snapped the thermostat onto the back panel.

New Nest Thermostat

Since the weather has recently taken a turn for the better, I haven’t really had a chance to use the Nest since I installed it. And I don’t have central air conditioning, so I’ll have to wait until next winter to put it to the test. But in the meantime, it looks good on the dining room wall. It’s a definite aesthetic improvement over the old, beige box of a thermostat that it replaced, anyway. Actually, its circular, steel-rimmed display bears a striking resemblance to Hal 9000, the homicidal computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And like Hal, the Nest – which is equipped with motion sensors – always seems to be watching. One day about a week after I installed it, I came home from work and the thermostat informed me that it had collected enough information about my comings and goings to initiate an auto-away schedule: it will automatically lower the temperature to a predefined level when no one is home. The auto-away feature is a little creepy, but it’s what makes the thermostat so convenient. And Nest has a pretty solid privacy policy, which has remained unchanged even though they’re now owned by Google. The automated features of the thermostat are also just really cool. It makes me feel like I’m living in the future where artificially intelligent robots tend to my every need.

Anyway, now that outdoor temperatures are bearable and occasionally downright pleasant, I’ve stopped thinking about heating bills altogether. But hopefully when next winter rolls around, the new thermostat will save me some money, and make for a more comfortable indoor climate.