I was thinking yesterday as I was installing the sod in the backyard about all the hours and sweat and some blood (and maybe just a few tears) that it took to get to this point. My goodness, we’ve come a long way from where we started in the backyard over two full years ago. So many separate individual projects, so much work, so many trips to Fort Totten (the dump), so many weekends and nights spent back there.
Pardon me if I get a little bit misty while I reflect about it all…
It’s all been worth it. For sure. And now, we’ll get to relax and enjoy it.
The sod arrived on a flatbed from Summit Hall yesterday while I was working at home, waiting to take mom to the airport at lunchtime to head back to Atlanta. And just like it did all day Monday, it was still drizzling — perfect for sod going in, soaking everything a foot deep back there. I had the forklift operator plop it down just outside the fence in the alley.
As soon as work was done, I went out and started cranking away to get it all down. I rented a turf roller from Home Depot and ran over the prepared dirt a few times with it 1/3 full to tamp things down and level the yard out a little bit. It showed me some low places where I needed to regrade a bit and level it out. Amazingly, the yard was almost TOO saturated with water and quite squishy in a few places. Without any roots or rocks to stabilize the soil, that much rainwater just completely saturated things. I added some peat moss in the worst areas to soak it up.
After a couple of hours of carrying one piece in at a time, placing it down, and cutting a few to fit, I had the sod laid. I filled the turf roller about 75% full and rolled the entire yard back and forth two dozen times until everything felt settled. (Pictures from Wednesday morning.)
After two years of work, the yard is essentially finished. We’ll have a few small things to do here and there, but it’s finished. The view from the upstairs sleeping porch this morning was a beautiful thing. Especially when thinking about how it looked in May 2011, two full years ago.
One of our favorite things about the finished product is that we will have virtually zero stormwater runoff from our yard. We have the rain barrel that will capture all but the heaviest and longest rains, and now that we have the garden (and the grass) we have plenty of things to water back here to use all that rainwater. We have drainage built into the retaining wall, but with grass, a garden and a pervious walkway covering almost all of the yard, almost all water that falls in the yard will likely be filtered slowly through the surface and returned to the groundwater.
This is a heavy contrast to most renovated houses that sell in the area and in DC, where they either pave the entirety of the backyard for parking or a patio, or otherwise turn most of it into impermeable surface because “that’s what buyers want.” (Like our neighbors’ house across the alley who park their cars on the street and are trying to break up a large chunk of the concrete the flippers poured so they can have a garden. Just because it sells doesn’t mean it’s what people want.)
And soon, we’ll have vegetables and herbs to eat from our own yard.
Here’s a quick look back in photos over those two years from May 2011 up to May 2013. Two years in time, and a world of difference.
Left – August 2011. Hedges on both sides mostly ripped out, with ancient fences left behind inside the hedges. Chain link fence in the back and large tree/shrubbery/whatever removed from the back edge of the yard. Looking naked and ugly, but at least the yard became 10 feet wider without the ridiculously wild unchecked hedges. Factoid: neither neighbor on either side knew who the fence belonged to, because for the 35 years they had lived next door, the hedges had always been there.
Right – February 2012. My awesome boss of a brother-in-law standing on a concrete pile of victory. Driveway mostly gone, or so we thought at the time.
Left – September 2012. More concrete removed, and then the retaining wall for the back edge of the yard begins.
Right – January 2013. At Thanksgiving 2012, my father-in-law helped me build the raised bed on the north side of the yard. My friend Kurt built the fence around the same time.
Left – March 2013. Utilizing the RiverSmart program, we had a contractor put in a massively subsidized permeable paver walkway from the stairs to the back gate. Yard: still just dirt.
Right – April 2013. Yard tilled and graded, ready for sod.
For posterity’s sake and so I can have it all in one place, a quick look back at all that we had to do in the backyard to get to this point, as told in pictures and old posts from the blog over the last two years.
When we moved in, the backyard was a nightmare. The hedges were so big on each side that the yard felt like it was just 10 feet wide.
And it mostly stayed that way until around July 2011. That was when I started tearing out the hedges. I did that mostly by shearing everything off down near the ground as much as I could, and then digging up the roots and remnants. It took four trips to get everything to Ft. Totten in a truck.
After the hedges and fence and chain link posts set in concrete were gone, my brother-in-law started breaking up all the concrete for us. Shoot, he started AND finished breaking up the concrete in a single day!
With the concrete gone, it was time to make the full plan for the backyard. Step one was building the retaining wall at the back edge which would allow us to have a level backyard and also create a place to store the trash and recycling cans.
Above: the backyard in the summertime 2012, around the time when our daughter was born. Weeds coming up, looking like a mess.
With the retaining wall finished in September/October 2012, we could finally start on the fence and the raised garden beds, which we did at Thanksgiving 2012. The fence went in at about the same time, which marked the end of the toughest phase — certainly all of the hardest labor. The yard was level, the retaining wall was done, everything was fenced in, and we had a bed we could plant come springtime 2013.
Then we tilled the yard and removed a ton of rocks, put the sod in, and that was that!
And saying that “my hands are a little sore” today is like saying “our backyard is full of rocks”
I rented a tiller late Friday night and cranked ‘er up in the backyard early Saturday morning. I think I may have used one years ago, but I had no memory of the fact that it’s every bit as abusive to your hands and arms and back as a jackhammer. Brutal. I could barely make a fist by the end of Saturday. Maybe last time I was using it on already fairly loose soil, but this time, it was compacted, hard, 100% settled dirt, much of which was hard clay.
In 2-3 hours of jaawwwww-shaaaaakkkkking-vibbbbbbraaaaations, I had both sections of the yard on either side of the paver walk tilled up and turned over.
That turned out to be the easy part of the job.
The second half of Saturday was spent fishing rocks out of the soil turned up by the tiller. And then fishing out more rocks. And then finding more rocks. (Most of which came from breaking up the old driveway, of course.)
After too long spent climbing on my hands and knees grabbing big rocks and throwing them in buckets, I finally realized I should create a more efficient way to get the rocks out, so I built a little screening box out of old 2x4s and window screening so I could toss in handfuls/shovelfuls of soil and then shake out the dirt and put the rocks in a bin.
I used a rake to sweep up rocks on the top of the soil into piles (along with tons of soil, of course), and then shoveled those big piles into the box. After about (no joke) 100 times of filling the box, shaking it out, and pouring the rocks out, I had three large totes, several buckets and empty plant pots full of rocks.
And hurts in parts where I didn’t know I had parts.
With most of the rocks out — I could keep picking them out for weeks and still not get them all — I mixed in some peat moss and topsoil into both areas and leveled everything out. I also finished the drainage pipe from last weekend with the last joint I needed to connect the flexible pipe that goes to the alley with the end of the PVC pipe. With that done, I could finally bury the last of the pipe.
Of course, after watering the ground on Saturday evening, more rocks had come to the surface Sunday, so I went out and did yet a few more passes over the yard to get up the worst of them.
At the end of the day Sunday, the yard was completely ready for grass — which is coming on Tuesday!
(How it looked before the paver walk went in, before the weeds came up this spring.)
There’s something pretty about the freshly tilled and leveled yard full of dirt, eh? I kept looking out the window and admiring it all weekend.
And in perfect timing, it’s raining almost all day here in DC, which will fill up the empty rain barrel and saturate the soil probably far more than I’d even need to properly prep the soil. Perfect.
For the grass, we’ve decided to go with Meyer Zoysia, which we got very familiar with living in Arkansas where it seemed almost every new home there had Zoysia. It’s a super hardy grass that obliterates weeds, spreads fast, needs little mowing, requires less water than others, can sustain partial shade, and goes completely dormant in the winter when it turns evenly brown. We most want our grass to be green and soft in the spring, summer and fall when we’re most likely to be using it, and are fine with it going brown all winter long.
On the recommendation of our RiverSmart contractor, I found a turf farm out in Poolesville in the lowlands by the Potomac that sells Zoysia in sod (as opposed to plugs which can take a season or two to propagate.)
Summit Hall Turf Farm has been excellent and I’d recommend them to any of you looking for sod or plugs in the DC area. We were going to rent a Ziptruck and go out to pick up the turf, but I discovered they could deliver it for less than the price of the rental. It’s coming on Tuesday and hopefully I’ll be able to get it installed Tuesday evening after work. (After ordering, they sent me a nice packet of info on installation and care and feeding of Zoysia for the first few years. Great service.)
Come Wednesday, we’ll have grass in this yard. Can’t wait.
When we last looked at the backyard, my RiverSmart contractor was racing to finish up the paver walk before we got a blast of March snow more than a month ago. They did indeed finish up that day, and the yard looked so tidy and beautiful that next day with a light coat of beautiful snow on the ground.
That was the last biggest project for the backyard, and the second of the two things that I had to pay others do for me; the first of which was the fence.
We filled the raised bed when we built it back in 2012 with the free compost from DC over at the Ft. Totten waste transfer facility. It’s settled a great deal since then, so to fill it up and get the right soil composition, we filled the rest of the space with peat moss and proper bagged soil. We couldn’t find any vermiculite for water retention on the one day we had to do the shopping.
We moved our beautiful blueberry bushes into the soil; bushes that were a gift in memory of Rachel’s brother from some of our best friends (at her baby shower) last year and had been sitting on the back porch for the last year or so. Rachel planted a bunch of veggies and herbs. She’ll have to describe them all to you in a post of her own, but I know there are beets, squash, tomatoes and others. And some have already sprouted!
You might remember from my initial backyard plans that we were planning on doing grass in the larger area set off by the walkway, and doing pavers for a patio on the other side. Because of the cost and the fact that I want to do it myself eventually and we just don’t have time or money right now, we’re actually going to do grass in both areas.
More on the grass specifically in a later post… But in two weeks, I’m teaming up with a neighbor to share/rent a tiller from Home Depot to prepare our respective yards and share a Ziptruck and drive out to Poolesville to pick up the sod for our yards.
Before I can turn the soil over, I needed to do something to get rid of the incredibly ugly black flexible drain pipe running from our downspout/rain barrel through the yard to the alley. We got an (almost free) rain barrel installed through the RiverSmart program a year and a half ago, but with nothing to water in the back yard for the most part, it spent a lot of time completely full and switched to “bypass,” running water out the leaky and stinky flexible drain pipe instead.
I tried to knock out two big projects this last Saturday: 1) move the rain barrel, raise it up higher to increase the water pressure, make the stand more attractive than the crappy cinder blocks RiverSmart used, and 2) build and bury a new overflow drainage pipe from the barrel to the alley.
The first step was to dig a trench for the drainage pipe. Ideally, you put a pipe like this a good bit deeper in the ground (or below the frost line), but I was limited by the fact I couldn’t have it any deeper than the level that would keep a slight downhill slope yet make it over the top of the wall in the back corner of the yard. (Ideally, I would have done this in coordination with the retaining wall and run it out the bottom of the wall at alley level. But that ship has sailed.)
Digging the trench only took an hour or two, though I managed to discover YET MORE BURIED CONCRETE that I had to dig out — a enormous poured cement support from an ancient fence that I had somehow missed back when tearing the southern fence out.
Since we’re not going to do anything under the stairs right up against the fence — heck, we can barely get back there at all and it was difficult just to dig the trench! — the pipe isn’t very deep there at all.
To make the drainage pipe, I bought three 10′ lengths of 4″ solid PVC, four couplers, a 90˚ elbow, and two adapters — one for attaching the flexible drain pipe from the barrel to the drain, and one to attach a flexible end to wrap around the back edge of the fence and drain to the alley. That’s about $80 worth of material. I’d never actually worked with PVC; at least as far as cutting and joining and all that. But it’s pretty simple.
Dry fit the lengths to make sure everything fits properly. (I had forgiving tolerances here since the drain didn’t have to start in one precise spot, just somewhere near the rain barrel.) Then clean the pipes where they join. Prime with the purple primer. Wait 30 seconds or so for that to dry. Then put the PVC cement on each side of the joint. After that, you’ve got 30 seconds or so before the melted layer of PVC starts to harden, so work fast. Slide the joints together with the registration marks slightly out of alignment, so you can twist a 1/8 or 1/4 turn to line them up which also helps the joint to be stronger. Boom. Pipe created.
For the place where it actually runs out to the alley, I used an adapter so I could attach a bit of the old flexible pipe to run between the segments of fence and reach the alley.
With the pipe in place, I turned my attention to the rain barrel. It was never properly leveled when it went in in November 2011, and they installed it on regular ol’ cinder blocks which look terrible. We wanted to turn it so the hose faces out to the yard and not under the stairs, and put it on something more attractive.
I bought more of the same stacking stones to use for the base that we used to build the raised bed. I might go and get one more ring’s worth so we can raise it even a little higher. Every bit of height helps with the pressure. It’s pushed as far against the fence as it can go now, too to maximize space. Once in place, I hooked the white flexible downspout pipe to the barrel, and used some of the old black flexible pipe to run the overflow to the newly installed drain.
Now the drain is hidden in the ground and we’re ready to prep the yard for sod in two weeks. (I just need to remember not to hack the pipe to pieces with the tiller! Mental note! Stay away from the fence!)
So what grass did we end up choosing and how are we going to get the ground ready for the sod? I’ll share that in a second post to follow shortly. Looks better with the ugly black pipe gone, right? Rachel sure thinks so.
Yesterday, the new living room entertainment center cabinet was half-finished. Before I wrap up the rest of the story and show off the finished product, I should probably step back and explain just a little bit about how I put it all together for those of you that care about such things.
I used nicer sanded birch plywood for all cabinet surfaces that would show, which is the top and left side of the short cabinet, and then the left side of the tall cabinet. I saved a little $$ by using ordinary plywood (sanded on one side) for the other sides of the boxes. I used pocket holes for some joints (using my fantastic Kreg Jig Jr.) and screws all the way through the outside on the joints that will be hidden — like underneath both boxes.
I dadoed out a 3/4″ channel in the tall cabinet for that shelf that forms the division between the open shelf on the top and the cabinet with the door below. That also helps to provide some structural stability for the boxes, though it’s probably unnecessary on this one, since they were getting attached together and also to the wall at the end. I added some supports across the back of each cabinet as well for the same reasons.
Each box went up on legs that were about six inches tall. That gets them high enough to clear the baseboard that I left on the back wall so the boxes fit flush against the walls and puts them at the right height for the baseboard and trim cap, which is a little shorter than the usual six inch tall baseboards throughout the house and the dining room built-in. I opted for shorter trim in here so that the TV wouldn’t have to move any higher up the wall.
You’ll also note in that picture above a little rectangular hole in the bottom of the short cabinet. After inspecting the wiring, I decided against moving the electrical receptacle that’s in the baseboard right below that hole. I was going to move it up into the wall, but because it’s run in a series in rigid conduit headed upstairs, it was going to be a challenge for me to move it. Instead, I cut this little hole so I could get my hands in there if I needed to replace it one day, and it’s going to get covered with a little hinged door with a cutout for the power strip cord.
I drilled 35mm holes in the sides and the fixed shelves so wires can run hidden from the TV, into the short cabinet, and all the way up to the top of the tall cabinet. (Also, all of the shelves leave a little space at the back so wires can run behind each one without having to drill holes in each one.)
The depth of the cabinets was planned in such a way so that when the face frame and cabinet doors went on they’d be flush (or slightly shallower) than the wall there to the right that contains the A/C ductwork.
So…..with the cabinets totally built and all the holes pre-drilled, dadoes cut, supports in place, and the 1/4″ thin plywood sheets cut to fit the back of each one, it was time to paint.
And paint, and paint and paint. With 7 shelves in total, two cabinets, two big sheets of plywood for the back of each and loads of finish trim, it seemed like all I was doing for days on end was painting. And cleaning paintbrushes. And without fail, every time I’d finish painting for the night, I’d discover some side of a shelf or some extra piece of trim I had missed. Rinse and repeat.
With the boxes painted, it was time to map out the face frame for the cabinets. In the picture of all of my plans, you can see a couple of sketches of the face frame in there in the top row. One was for buying the wood, and one had all the measurements and locations for the pocket holes so I’d know where to drill them all at once.
Once I built the face frame and test fit it to the cabinets, I secured the cabinets in place to each other and to the wall. And then we attached the face frame. I used 18ga brad nails to hold it in place once I got it aligned, and then came back with 8 penny finish nails to really secure it well.
With the face frame in place, it was starting to feel finished. All that was left was to hang the three cabinet doors, install the cabinet shelves (which are all sitting on adjustable pins — see the holes on the inside of each cabinet), install the trim, fill all the nail holes, touch up with paint, and then tackle the top open shelves.
For the top open shelves above the TV, we really wanted to avoid putting big corbels or brackets on the wall. We wanted these two shelves to be as light and open as possible so they wouldn’t dominate the view of the room from the foyer. I came up with what I think was a pretty good way to make ‘em float. First, I cut dadoes in the side of the tall cabinet while I was assembling it. That holds one end of each shelf (with countersunk screws on the inside of the tall cabinet.)
For the other end, I bought a 3/8″ steel rod and used a long boring bit to drill a hole in the shelf as deep as I could manage, and then drilled a hole in the stud in the wall as far as possible. (Drilling a straight hole into the shelf is difficult without a drill press, but I managed it pretty well.)
I cut the rod to fit the length, inserted it into the shelf with some construction adhesive and slid the shelf into the hole on the wall and the dado on the cabinet. I also put a bead of adhesive along the back edge of the shelf so it would hold close to the wall and not slowly pull away over time. After that, I countersunk a couple 2.5″ screws on the inside of the tall cabinet and into the shelf.
Though we were never intending these to hold lots of heavy things, they feel pretty strong to me. We were thinking more of pictures, light decorations; that sort of thing.
To make them look as minimal as possible from the foyer looking into the living room, I put 1×2 trim only on the front edge of each shelf, and then rounded off the edge and cut into the 1×2 so they taper off into the rounded edge, making them look pretty unique. And at 11.5″ deep, they step back nicely from the depth of the tall cabinet to the right.
After that, there was just a lot of trim to install. Cove moulding on the top of the short cabinet to cover the gaps where it meets the wall, cove moulding all the way along the right side of the tall cabinet, baseboards, toe moulding and trim cap at the bottom, and a nice detailed trim cap flipped upside down at the top of the short cabinet to give it a finished look there.
After about ten days straight of hard work, it’s all finished! (These pictures are from before I finished filling the holes and painting, so pardon the putty marks!)
And lastly, the two newest built-ins in the den and dining room together. The cabinet doors match exactly — same exact style of door, for a total of $16 from Community Forklift.
In retrospect, I’d have to say I’ve learned a ton in the last two months about building cabinets, shelves and built-in storage. I really had no idea what I was doing when I got started and I spent a ton of time just staring at spaces to fill and trying to calculate in my head the required measurements and how things would all fit together. The spatial gift that my brother-in-law had to just see everything in his head and jump right into building things is definitely a gift I do not possess.
But we’re both really happy with how these two biggest, most visible projects turned out. No more threat of electrocution for our crawling and chewing baby, and lots of great storage created to cut down on the clutter.
So what’s next? Why, I’m glad you asked. I think I have hours of FIFA on the Playstation and laying on the couch watching movies for at least a couple of weeks in my immediate future.
And inevitably, watching Lily learn how to open the new cabinet doors.
So the plan all along was to “practice” building a bunch of built-in furniture for the house in various places, and then use all that I’d learned and what were sure to be burgeoning master cabinet making skills (ha!) to complete the coup de grace: a built-in entertainment center in the den; the most viewed, most sat-in, most enjoyed, most regularly occupied room of the house.
We all assumed that would be months and months after the first project back in January (the guest room bookcase). But then Lily started crawling. And crawling and crawling.
So after about the hundredth time yelling “NO!” and pulling Lily away after she crawled over to where the TV is and grabbed the power cords on the floor and started to put ‘em to her mouth, we figured that in the interest of childproofing, it was time to create the new integrated entertainment center for the den. Like, now. Something with doors that would close down at baby level and hide all of the cords inside.
There were some constraints to the design.
- Don’t overwhelm the room. Limited depth to keep it from sticking out so far into the den, which would look terrible from the foyer looking into the den.
- Keep it flush or nearly flush with the channel for the ductwork that runs in the corner (see any picture below)
- Don’t fill in with solid walls on the side or above the TV, so open shelves above the teevee.
- Hide all the cords in the wall or inside the furniture
- Make do with salvaged cabinet doors so I don’t have to make any. Because, um, I can’t make good cabinet doors yet.
So first, the sketches. I like to make a lot of sketches apparently.
But the first iteration was this rough idea here.
I already had a pair of cabinet doors ($4 each at Community Forklift) that were the exact same size as the ones I bought for the dining room project — those would go below the TV in that larger pair. And then I thought I might be able to go back and find two or three matching ones at Community Forklift to fill the space to the right of the television in a taller cabinet.
I struck out on my attempt to find good cabinet doors. I did find some that could have worked, but they were just too large. So we quickly tried to come up with a plan B that didn’t involve ordering some custom cabinet doors from somewhere.
We came up with the idea of taking the door off of one of our existing pieces of furniture, painting it to match, and then leaving the space above that open for a lamp, pictures or something else pretty that we want visible.
The fact that it had glass in the door and was a completely different pattern meant that matching the other cabinet doors was less of an issue than it had been when trying to find other salvaged doors in a similar style. This door is so different it just didn’t matter. Incidentally, this was the first piece of furniture we bought when we got married. It’s a set of three that goes together — one other exactly like this, and then a shorter piece that goes between them. We bought ‘em in downtown Rogers, Arkansas for $150 or something for the set. They’ve served us well, but it’s time to make one into something better.
(Oh, and we’d already been keeping one of them to the right of the TV anyway. It was all of our ‘entertainment’ storage.)
Behold, plan B:
All three of the existing doors I was going to use were stained various dark shades, so to make painting easier, I went ahead and sanded them all down and roughed up the hard to get to places to make primer adhere a little better.
With everything measured and planned out (on my 15 sheets of paper), I turned my attention to building the cabinet boxes. I decided to build the boxes (short left and tall right) as separate pieces so they’d be easier to work with and move around. Other than having to stop to resupply with wood at Home Depot, I churned out those pretty quick in two nights after work. And once they were done, I could test fit them into the space, which helped me plan out the face frame for the cabinets.
With the cabinet boxes built, the space filled and measured out, the boxes and all the components go away to get painted in another room. And we’re left with a bare wall where everything is going to go. I had to do a little work on the wall to move the holes that hide the cords around. The top hole was right on the edge of the top, so it needed to move up and then have the hole filled, and the bottom one needed to move up so they weren’t so far away.
A little bit of drywall work, and the cord hiding apparatus, as well as the wall mount for the TV, were all in place. (The TV had to get moved higher up the wall to be above the level of the cabinet.)
So that’s where we’ll leave things today.
Lest you worry about quality assurance on this job, I did have my special tester on site for the job. She checked out the cabinets to make sure they were plumb, square, and suitable for sitting with small stuffed animals.
Next post, we’ll wrap it all up and show off the finished product.
After a week straight of nonstop work the dining room built-in is finished. And this time, since it’s been so long since part one and you’ve all waited patiently (all ten of you), let’s just reveal the final product here right at the start before picking up where we left off.
I couldn’t have gotten this one done anywhere near as fast without Lily’s grandmother Janny here at the house for a week. She came into town two Fridays ago and stayed a week and a day, which totally freed me up to work on this thing nonstop on the weekend and after work during the week.
I started in the afternoon two Saturdays ago, after a trek to DC Brau to fill up my growlers with a new brew and a stop at Community Forklift to find some salvaged cabinet doors, and spent probably 12-14 hours on Saturday-Sunday together working on this one ( as well as the fireplace cabinet) at which point the bulk of the actual cabinet was finished. After that, most of the week was spent painting and working on the trim and final touches.
When we left things in the last post, the cabinet itself was finished, but all of the trim and finish work still remained, as well as the shelves over the cabinet. And that expected gap between the cabinet and the knee wall.
To integrate the new cabinet into the rest of the wall and make it look as seamless as possible, they key was to continue the trim from the kitchen knee wall all the way down in front of the cabinet and try to repeat the same look as much as possible. First, I ripped off all the current trim on the bottom of the knee wall, starting with the toe moulding (which was saved to re-use), the baseboard and the ogee cap trim. This was a good excuse to get rid of the knotty pine baseboard that our contractor used on the knee wall just because I had it laying around the house instead of MDF or clear pine.
I bought a long length of MDF baseboard to run all the way from the right edge across the cabinet to the left wall. Which does more than anything to make it look totally integrated.
The other major issue was to cover the gap between the knee wall and the cabinet face. That face is flush with the knee wall depth, so covering the gap was as simple as getting a clear pine 1×3 to cover the gap. And above the baseboard, I used the same ogee trim moulding as a cap on the baseboard and just continued it on the other side of the new 1×3 board.
With the paint on, it’s a nice seamless transition between the two very separate pieces — the back of the kitchen counter knee wall and the new built-in.
We already had that same ogee moulding flipped upside down under the overhanging lip of the granite countertop, so we repeated that same pattern at the top of the cabinet as the bottom, just upside down.
The last remaining detail, and one that we didn’t have a good idea about when we started, was how to cover the top of the cabinet. I built the box with nice enough wood that we could have left the top as the wood of the cabinet box with some trim around the top edges to cover the gaps with the wall. But that would have been a little too plain.
Once again, Community Forklift to the rescue.
I went back to Community Forklift the following Friday to see if I could find something good to cover the top with. We had talked about granite, but without an expensive diamond tipped blade, I had no way to cut granite, so even if I found a good enough remnant, I’d end up having to pay someone to come and cut it anyway. But I thought I might be able to find a good piece of solid wood I could cut down, or some other inexpensive countertop material I could cut down with ordinary saw blades. Really, I had no specific idea when I walked in the door.
After thinking I was going to be leaving empty-handed, I went back to the shelves of Corian scrap and found a long piece of gray speckled Corian that had just enough un-cut and un-damaged surface to cut out to fit the top. And Corian is basically condensed plastic, so you can cut it with an ordinary saw, though it does stink like burning plastic when you do. I had to buy more than I needed with an 8-foot piece, but it was only $25 total for the whole scrap.
Once I cut it down and dropped it in place, I knew we had found the right item. The grey color was perfect. It compliments the countertop color without competing with it (and it’s half the thickness so there’s a clear separation), and it matches perfectly with the light and darker shades of gray we have on the walls in the dining room already. Rachel said that if we were buying Corian from the store brand new to match our room, it’s probably the exact color we would have chosen.
Once again, Community Forklift for the win!
I thought about routing the front edge to give it a lip, but the consensus from Rachel and her mom was that it looked best with a squared edge — made the whole thing look like a slab of stone.
After gluing it down with construction adhesive, to complete the look, I just put quarter-round moulding around the edges to fill the slight gaps with the non-square wall around the top.
With the top and all moulding in place, that just left the shelves to finish.
I liked the look of Alex and Wendy’s open kitchen wine bar shelves so much that I more or less replicated ‘em. I actually stumbled on the same corbels/brackets at Home Depot, used 1×12′s for the shelves, and then ran a 1×2 lip around each shelf to make them look more substantial. I shifted the brackets out to the edges to hit studs since I had two available, and then ran a small cleat across the gap between them that went into the wall first and hit a middle stud. Mounting the cleat first makes leveling the shelves much easier since you only have to level and mount a small cleat rather than a big clumsy shelf.
(Though as that picture shows, I had to do a little extra work to level this shelf front to back, because the wall is not square and some of the screws in the corbel weren’t properly grabbing the wall and pulling the shelf tight to the wall.)
After filling the nail holes and touching up with paint, the project was a wrap — save for the missing piece of trim on the door frame that I am going to strip down and repaint while I’ve got it off the wall before putting it back up.
Now is the time that Rachel would probably like me to note that the shelves are not fully decorated (just the rest of my beer glasses!), and yes, that is blue painter’s tape on the edge. We were hosting the dessert for our annual block party progressive dinner so I wanted to make sure people didn’t lean against the wall where the trim was missing and get plaster dust on their clothes.
She would probably also like to add that she’s totally thrilled that the little ipod stereo and baby monitor now have a home that’s not on the knee wall countertop. Ideally, she’d have nothing up there at all. She’s a clutter nazi. In a good way, of course.
So that’s that! The built-in bonanza is done. For at least a week or two. Then, the most demanding one yet — new entertainment center/shelves combo for the living room. Should be a challenge.
(We’ll close with one last picture…)
I came home today to find the landscaping contractors wrapping up the first day’s work on the new paver walk, finishing up the layer of quarter stone and pea gravel.
This project has been a long time coming. We were initially trying to pull this together all the way back in summer and fall 2012 when I ended up doing my timber retaining wall on my own. And we thought it would happen around Thanksgiving or early December, but once we missed that window, it was going to be awhile, since the contractor was heading out of the country and shutting down the business for a month in Jan-Feb during the worst of the winter.
Ha! Whoopsie! Now we’re staring down the barrel of 5-10″ of snow starting tonight into Wednesday, and he just started the work this morning.
This project is part of DC’s RiverSmart program, designed to incentivize homeowners into doing things to reduce stormwater runoff, which in DC, runs into a combined rain/sewer system that overflows into the river during heavy rainfalls. And that’s just gross.
That’s how we got our rain barrel for $25 or so. Along with that, they’ll heavily subsidize other work to reduce runoff, like providing a $1200 credit toward the removal of a driveway or large impervious surface that gets replaced with permeable surface. They’ll pay to remove the concrete or pay for new pervious surface. In this case, paver stone installation for us.
It’s a great program and though the wait can be long for approval and for contractors, if you’re patient, it’s totally worth it. We’re paying just a small amount for this project and ending up with a new permeable paver walk after all is said and done.
Once we nailed down our RiverSmart-approved contractor, we were at the mercy of his schedule and the approval from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, which manages the program for the District Department of the Environment. Everything was approved back in the Fall and we’ve just been waiting for our contractor.
Here’s to hoping that Green Room DC works fast on Tuesday. Precipitation is supposed to start falling in the afternoon sometime, and then it just goes downhill from there.
Late update! By noon on Tuesday they had made some serious progress. Looks like they’ll get things done before the snow arrives.
Like I said before, one day I’m going to run out of spaces to fill and radiators to cover, and that’s going to be a sad day for me. Because I am really enjoying the built-in bonanza currently underway in the old rowhouse.
Though, based on the amount of time and effort these last two took and the fact that I had the luxury of having a grandparent here for the entire week to more or less cut me entirely loose of all baby duty, I’ll probably run out of available time long before I run out of space.
So up next? This little nook in the dining room/kitchen.
That’s a shot from sometime in Nov. 2010 while the kitchen was still under construction. You can see the baseboard at right is missing its cap and the floors haven’t been refinished yet.
After we moved in, we filled that area with a little narrow, shallow cabinet we bought back when we lived in Arkansas. Actually, it’s part of a set of three pieces, which was the first furniture we ever bought after getting married. And that’s how things stayed until last weekend.
The “plan” was to do a combination cabinet/wine rack, with open shelves above. We talked about doing a full height built-in cabinet — like the guest room — but decided that it would make the room feel small, and that we could get with the same amount of storage space with simple shelves above the level of the kitchen backsplash/knee wall and leaving things more open above.
Though with my generally “rough” planning skills, we revised things a few times along the way.
First, I took out the chair rail and the baseboards that would be in the way of the cabinet box. It was going to sit up on top of a base high enough to elevate the box above the top of a baseboard, so the back base didn’t have to come off.
Rachel found a picture of a few built-ins with integrated wine racks, so I was trying to do something along those lines. Though rather than making a slot for each bottle like we saw in a lot of photos, I was going to just put in two sloped open shelves on top of the cabinets for wine bottles.
Hence the sloped dadoes in the side of the box.
That slot at right is for the top interior of the cabinet, and the slot at right will hold a shelf for wine bottles, with one more above that I hadn’t cut yet.
Because good cabinet doors with rail and stile and inset edges are crazy hard to make from scratch without a table saw and/or router table, I went over to Community Forklift two Saturdays ago to see what I could get in the way of salvaged cabinet doors. I found two fantastic off-white solid wood standard 30×18 door fronts that I painted white, along with four other identical doors in brown I’ll use soon for another project.
The best part? They look incredibly similar to our kitchen cabinets. From a distance, you probably would never notice any difference.
Total cost? 2 bucks a door for a total of 12 dollars. Boom. And enough cabinet doors for my next project to boot.
The only problem — and I don’t have any pictures of this — is that after I finished the cabinet box and we squeezed it in place, it was too close to the left side trim (which I had to pull off to fit it in) and would obstruct the doors from opening properly. And because we had the height coming about six inches ABOVE the top of the counter at this point with two levels for wine bottles, there was no way to easily move it to the right or size it down.
What to do? Rachel and her mom had the idea of cutting down the height, which after running through all the possibilities, turned out to the best possible option. Cutting it down meant that the box could slide UNDER the counter lip to its right and slide just enough to the right to let those cabinet doors open on the left.
So I took it down to the shop and literally just lopped off the top six inches of the box and scrapped the second wine shelf.
And I have to say, I wish we’d planned it like this, because it fits the space infinitely better. Seriously, my original idea would’ve looked dumb compared to how it turned out.
There you have the box in place on the bottom frame of 2x8s after we cut it down and removed the top wine rack. You can’t tell from this photo, but the depth of the frame is flush with the knee wall to the right.
After painting the face frame and filling all the nail holes, I put the $4 cabinet doors in place and things were looking really solid.
So after half a day on Saturday and a solid day of work on Sunday, by last Monday night I was about halfway home. At this point, it looks good, but there’s still a ton of trim work to do to fully integrate the piece and give it that great “built-in” look. And then there’s also the shelves on the wall above to build and install. (Yes, I did prime the 2×8 frame on the bottom so it would look better for this picture.)
Check back Tuesday or Wednesday for part two of the story of the new wine/liquor/stuff cabinet for the dining room and see the finished product, with the final coat of paint going on just literally hours before we hosted dessert for our annual block party.
One day, I’m going to run out of nooks and radiators and corners to fill or cover with new pieces of built-in furniture, and that, my friends, is going to be a sad day.
Because I am on a roll in the house right now creating new built-in furniture, and honestly, I’ve enjoyed this more than almost anything I’ve done in the house so far. Of course, it’s competing with such glamorous tasks such as scraping paint and wallpaper from walls, skimming and mudding, patching plaster, stripping paint, choking on plaster dust, pressure-washing paint off of concrete, scraping up old linoleum flooring and other tedious, labor-intensive tasks. Finally, I get to create and build something.
For anyone interested in built-in furniture in your house, I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s a fantastic book filled with great ideas and inspiration, and also some basic carpentry tips for getting started on built-ins. It’s probably 75% ideas, and about 25% how-tos with helpful diagrams and explanations of joinery techniques, etc. We drool over the amazing houses and rooms inside with beautiful built-ins galore.
Of course, I should also admit that I gave this book to Rachel as a present a few years ago, but it’s all worn out and dog-eared now because I’ve been flipping through it and marking pages over and over again for the last few months. But I think as long as she ends up getting the actual products installed in her house, she doesn’t care who reads the book, amiright, Rachel???
After wrapping up my first attempt with the new combo bookshelf/radiator cover for the guest room — now populated with books unboxed from the attic finally — I was ready to roll on a new project. Especially since Janny (Rachel’s mom’s grandma name) is in town all this week, freeing me up for some serious construction time over the weekends and this week after work.
Last Saturday I started building a new cabinet/wine rack/bar for the little nook at the end of our knee wall in the dining room, but I’m going to show that one off in a different post, hopefully after I finish it up.
But while I was waiting for paint to dry on that one, I went after a little built-in that I’ve wanted to do for a while: a bookshelf to fill our fake fireplace. The fireplace itself is completely fake. I think it just exists to cover up the bulge in the wall where the chimney goes down to the basement for the boiler (and once for the coal-fired boiler in 1921). If you look up the inside, you can see the floorboards in the master bedroom closet.
It’s just decorative, though when we moved in, it did come with an awesome set of fake fire logs, complete with orange lightbulb inside and a mechanism that spun and made noise like a crackling fire when you plugged it in.
I painted the fireplace bricks this summer, and though we’re going to paint them again when we repaint the living room, it was a huge improvement to soften the room.
But we had this little space in our living room that was going unused. As Lily got older, we recently moved her little play/crawl area over to the fireplace and started keeping all of her toys in a basket inside or near the fireplace, along with our recent magazines. We had the idea to turn the space into an official toy chest of sorts for the living room. Even before Lily was born, we also kept a handful of toys in the dining room nook (that’s also being filled) for our friends’ kids when they came over, so we needed a new place for everything anyway.
So while paint was drying on my other project, I banged out the cabinet box and face frame on Sunday night in an hour or so. It’s a very simple cabinet box, sized a little smaller than the opening, with curved sides to match the profile of the fireplace, which shrinks in depth as you get to the top. No need for a back — the bricks will provide one.
Once I finished the box, I placed it in the opening to see how much vertical space was left, and then cut four feet to prop the box up on to level it out and also give some clearance for the doors at the bottom. For the face frame, I sized that to fill the fireplace space perfectly, so when you slide the whole thing in, the face frame almost touches all four sides. (You can see it protruding on the right below.)
I used the router to dado out a 3/4″ slot for a fixed shelf in the middle to help provide stability, and then just pocket holed all the rest of the joints. (It’s nice to make built-ins where the sides can’t be seen — it means pocket holes everywhere!)
I scavenged some old cabinet doors for other projects at Community Forklift on Saturday, but because this space is an irregular size, I needed to make doors from scratch for this. Without a router table or a table saw, I have to get creative sometimes. So to provide the illusion of depth and relief around the inside that you might see on a normal cabinet door, I got some solid pine, routed all four sides with my trusty roundover bit, and then added some small profile trim to run around the door face, inset from the edge.
All combined together, it looks like there’s a lot more going on together than one little 3/4″ piece of trim on a routed edge.
I used some of the Euro-styled door hinges — same as we have in our kitchen cabinets — and used soft-close versions so Lily won’t be able to slam the door or easily pinch her fingers inside. Those hinges are surprisingly easy to install, though I had to buy a new expensive boring bit to make the wide round holes for the hinges. (I highly recommend this Freud bit if you’re looking for one.)
Slide the cabinet into the fireplace to fit, prime and then voila!
I primed the whole thing but only painted the outside of it with our usual white trim color, because we are going to repaint the living room to match the dining room soon, and we’re likely going to end up repainting this along with the bricks, so that’ll keep me from having to paint the inside twice.
To fix it in place, I’m going to just put a couple of small screws through the cross brace at the top into the bricks in the back of the fireplace, anchored with some washers. It can’t tip over even if it’s not mounted, but a few very small screws should be enough to keep it from ever sliding out of place.
Oh, and the middle shelf has a little piece of 3/4″ shelf trim on the front to cover up the flat sawn edge.
After finishing the painting last night, I put it in place this morning and let Lily check out her new toy chest.
Though it needs to be leveled out a little bit still, Lily gave it her official look of approval. Or maybe she was just interested in the camera as usual. In any case, we think she will enjoy the nice (closable!) little storage area for her toys. As will we.
Final before/after, as is tradition around here, also showing off the new mirror that Rachel found a couple of months ago. Much better decor for the fireplace all around.
So what do you think about the final product? Good design? How should we paint it? Paint the protruding trim white and leave the doors dark? Red? It is a door, after all.
After just about a week of work, the full radiator cover/bookshelf combo is finished and installed. I think I started buying materials last Monday or Tuesday, did a little bit of the work during the week late at night, but did most of it over this last weekend. This post is part two. Click for part one here.
I’d have to say that I’m pretty pleased with how it all turned out — especially considering I’d never really attempted something like this. Of course, since we planned to paint it all along, it’s a lot less demanding than something that I’d stain or clear coat, but it was a good first attempt. Rachel wanted it painted white, mostly because it’s a little more airy that way. A 7.5′ tall bookshelf would be much more imposing for the room stained in a dark color.
So where were we? In the first post, I had finished the radiator cover for the most part and it was ready for painting and the screens, but the shelves were unfinished.
I started with two pieces of 1×12 clear pine for the sides of the shelf. Since I wanted the shelves to be exactly that depth anyway, that prevented me from having to rip plywood down with long straight cuts sans table saw. So I already had two straight factory cut edges on the front and back. My plan was to cover that plain edge with trim, divide the space into three shelves (one fixed and two adjustable) with the bottom of the bookshelf (the radiator cover) serving as a fourth shelf.
Before assembling anything, I went ahead and drilled the holes for the adjustable shelves inside each side. There are fancy rigs out there with depth-controlled bits and templates for doing this, but I just measured carefully with the side pieces lined up side by side and drilled very carefully with a 1/2″ bit for the movable shelf supports. (You can also use a piece of pegboard with holes at regular intervals to do this, but I didn’t have any of that either.)
For the fixed middle shelf, I got a new 3/4″ dado bit for the router and routed a channel on the inside of each side about 1/4″ to 1/3″ deep. It’s best not to go any further than a third into material lest you weaken it too much. After checking to make sure it would fit the 1×12 shelves properly, I was ready to put everything together.
I had already cut the bottom of the shelf assembly when making the radiator box — that way I ensured that it would fit the top of the box exactly, and allowed me to drill the holes for dowels. The bottom and the top just went on with countersunk screws on the outside (top or bottom) of each. For the middle shelf, I couldn’t think of a good way to properly seat that shelf with any strength without going through the outside. So I counterbored some screws and covered them with wood caps on the outside. After sanding them down and painting them, you can’t even tell where they are.
I added a brace across the back on the inside at the very top so that I’d have something strong to use to screw the entire thing to the wall to keep it all from toppling over should a crazy child of mine go climbing up the shelves one day. Knowing my child’s genetic makeup (i.e., me), that seemed a smart eventuality to prepare for.
I cut a piece of sanded 1/4″ plywood to use as a cover for the entire back, which also adds some strength.
I put a small strip of leftover 3/4″ plywood across the top to push the crown moulding out a little bit from the face so that I could run trim on the sides all the way up to the top and meet a straight surface.
After that, there was just the crown moulding to add on the top and the trim on the facing sides. I’d never done crown before, and let’s just say that I do not have whatever spatial gift it is that allows one to easily visualize how even just the simple miter cuts need to be made to do crown moulding. Lots of scratching my chin and turning the wood around and saying “if I cut this piece here….then….um….”
Let’s also say that it was wise to purchase about twice as much as I needed for this job. Once the trim and moulding went on, it was finished, save for filling the nail holes, caulking the joints and painting it all.
After a night of priming and a late night of painting on Sunday and Monday, everything was painted and ready for assembly.
I screwed the pieces of screening that I had cut into the inside of the box. You can see I went a little pocket hole crazy on the inside. It was my first time. I got carried away. It happens.
Oh, and a note on cutting this metal screening: I was initially using metal snips which were bending the ends as they cut, but I discovered that a metal cutting blade on the jigsaw worked really well with a piece of wood behind the screen supporting it. Without it, obviously, the jig saw would just bounce the screening around everywhere. Just push the blade into the wood a little, keep the screen down flush against the wood and then just feed or pull the screening toward the blade so the screen does the work and the saw stays still — like a band saw, basically. Worked like a charm.
Moment of truth, dropping the box on top of the radiator.
Fits perfectly flush and straight against the wall, though because of the sag in the floor joists away from the wall on the left, I ended up taking the box off and trimming off 1/4″ on the left side to account for the slope in the floor. That way the whole thing stays level.
Before putting the shelves on, I went ahead and used the brad nailer to attach the trim around the rough facing of the bottom of the shelves, since I wouldn’t be able to get to the left side once it’s installed.
After that, I picked up the top half and laid it down on the box. Dowels and holes (with glue awaiting) lined up perfectly for a snug fit. I still have these pocket holes that I’m thinking of just filling without screws. The whole thing is really sturdy and the radiator box is mounted to the wall as well as the shelves, so I’m thinking of leaving these un-screwed so that I can more easily take this thing apart if I have to get to the radiator for some reason.
With the shelves back in place on the adjustable supports and the trim all finished (minus a few brad holes to fill), the whole thing is complete.
At long last, a final shot of the installed piece of furniture in the guest room. Looks pretty sharp.
And as always, the before/after of the space.
Can’t wait to bring a couple boxes of books up from the basement and start getting our books organized. The final rough cost on the entire project was about $135, though some of these materials are leftover for the next one.
- $45 for 3 1x12s. Made the three shelves and the two sides.
- $35 for 1 sheet of 3/4″ sanded birch plywood. Made the radiator box and bottom shelf.
- $8 for crown moulding
- $5 for beaded shelf edges
- $10 for cove moulding
- $15 for 1/4″ sheet of sanded plywood for the back and the top.
- $15 for metal screening
- $2 for shelf pins
- Already had the trim for the facing sides of the shelf
And speaking of the “the next one” I test fit this one in the front entryway and discovered I could replicate the measurements exactly and it would fit like a charm. Though we’re going to potentially make the shelves into closed cabinets here instead.
Looks like I’ve found a new product to put into regular production for the Old Rowhouse.