“Furniture” is probably too strong of a word for what I spent the last week building: a custom radiator box combined with bookshelves for the guest room. This is the first of two posts; read part two here.
This isn’t anything like a fancy chair or a dresser or a chest or any other kind of proper “furniture” that you’d go out and buy in a store — it’s just a utilitarian piece of storage to serve the multiple purposes of covering the radiator with something attractive, making good use of the typically wasted space above the radiator, and creating some much-needed bookshelves so that we can finally unpack the numerous boxes of books in the basement up into the house and help clear the way for the impending basement renovation.
While there are radiator covers aplenty out there, we were unlikely to find a piece of furniture that would exactly fit our radiator and also have the type of shelves that we wanted. I’ve already built one radiator cover for the nursery, and in the time we’d spend driving all over the world looking for the piece to fit here, I just figured that I could probably build something passable and attractive.
My first attempt at building a radiator cover for the nursery earlier in 2012.
The basic design was similar to the nursery radiator box on the bottom as one piece, and then a simple box shelf to be placed on top and dressed up with some trim and crown moulding. But in the end, it would all look integrated as one solid piece.
I made the radiator box just a little deeper than necessary (about 13 inches) out of sanded plywood, and then made the sides of the shelves out of clear pine 1×12′s, so the shelves taper back from the radiator box, which hopefully helps it all feel a little less imposing in the room.
The biggest challenge for me with making anything like this is that I don’t own a table saw (or even a fancy rig like this great Rip Cut from Kreg), so I have to get creative with trying to make long straight cuts.
I built this straight edge rig to help out. It fits the circular saw perfectly — you run the circular saw along the top straight edge and the blade runs right against the lower straight edge (the saw trimmed that edge off in a straight line when I made it.) With the jig saw — which I used for 90 percent of this project — I made two pieces of wood (white piece laying on the table) that shows the exact offset for the width of the jig saw. I set those down against each end of the line and then clamp down the straight edge accordingly. Then I just run the jig saw against the lower straight edge.
This worked pretty well, though the cuts certainly aren’t nearly as laser-straight as they’d be with a table saw.
To get the openings cut out of each face piece, I draw the square for the cutout and then drill on the inside of each corner with a 1/2″ bit, being careful not to drill anywhere over the line. That would leave a corner rounded out and it’s easy to square out a rounded-in corner with a jig saw. The 1/2″ holes are big enough to stick a jig blade into and then start cutting from the inside. All three face edges of the box have holes for the screening to let that cozy radiated heat out.
For the feet, I did them just like I did the first box — no moulding, just a gentle curve about four inches in from the corner that goes about 3 inches up and then across in a straight line. An easy way to get a nice curve traced down that you can replicate on the other legs is to use the bottom of a can of some kind. I used the bottom of the big can of wood putty, which was the perfect shape.
We opted not to do some sort of skirt moulding around the feet to keep this as slim and simple as possible. We do the feet in this way because the opening at the bottom helps it feel a little smaller and lighter than it would if it just touched the floor all the way across the face of the box. Along with leaving space above it and not hitting the ceiling, it’s just another simple design choice to help make small spaces feel as big as possible.
One thing that made this version much better than my previous attempt was the new Kreg pocket hole jig that I got for Christmas from my momma a few weeks ago.
I had been eager to test it out and this was the perfect opportunity. Unlike my last attempt, the radiator box part of this project has zero visible screw holes anywhere on it — not even countersunk/bored and filled screw holes. All of the screws are on the inside via pocket holes with the aid of dowels in places.
The Kreg jig is super easy to use and the results are fantastic. The only visible pocket holes this whole thing will have are four on the bottom outsides of the shelves to join it together with the radiator box. I couldn’t think of a better way to join them together. I couldn’t join the pieces out of sight in the back since it’ll be up against the wall when I put them together, and I couldn’t do it from inside the radiator box because the screens will already have to be in place when I put it all together.
But these four pocket holes on the outside will get filled and sanded, and since it’s all going to be painted, they’ll barely be noticeable.
I put cove moulding around the inside of the screen openings — a departure from the last box where I used quarter-round moulding. It’s not painted yet and the screens aren’t in place, but I already like the looks of this much more than the quarter-round.
You’ll notice that there’s no “top” on the radiator box. That’s because the top will actually be the bottom of the shelves, so it’ll just sit on top of this box and slide right into holes for the dowels that you might barely be able to see protruding from the top of the radiator box. And then the rough facing edge of that bottom will be covered up with some nice shingle trim that will help separate the halves visually and look like a ledge. After filling all of the nail holes and priming, the radiator box is good to go. The screens are cut and ready for install as soon as all the painting is done.
That’s about it for the first half of this project. I’ll share the story of the shelf half and show the finished product tomorrow.
This is the first of two posts; read part two here.
With the construction of the fence in the rearview, I had the idea to put our address number on the rear of the fence to help identify our house from the rear.
Why, you might ask, would one need an address marker in the alley? I’ve had a few deliveries that come to the rear like a pallet of construction materials. Or a contractor coming to the back of the house and needs to figure out which is ours. And of course, there’s always the garbagemen who recklessly push the trash and recycling bins from all 12 houses more or less in the general direction of your house. Having an address plate won’t help these fine public employees put our supercans back where they belong — nor would an engraved pathway from the truck back to where they belong — but it will help one of the 2-3 good samaritan neighbors who usually come out Wednesday evening and put everyone’s supercans back where they belong.
(Actually, I think my next door neighbor Mr. Robinson has been thanklessly moving everyone’s garbage cans back to their house for a decade or more. Along with sweeping out the alley at least once or twice a week. That man is the salt of the earth. And one of the reasons we wanted a fence we could see over on the sides of our backyard. We love our neighbors)
So for about $15, I made this address plate for the outside of the back fence.
I took a scrap piece of smooth, clear pine that happened to have already been primed (probably a baseboard scrap) and routed all four of the sides with my favorite lip router bit — the same one I keep using over and over again on shelves everywhere in the house. Like the basement shelves, the nursery shelves, etc….
Then I used the same red paint we used on our front door and the back door to finish it out. I got the numbers from the local big box (I had to go for some shelving that Annie’s doesn’t stock), and once I spaced them out and made pencil marks for each one, I nailed the plate up without numbers so that the numbers themselves would cover the nails. The two nails are under the two 4′s, I think. Then I just screwed the numbers in.
Voila, instant fancy looking address plate that’s a lot nicer than just stick on numbers, or even just putting nice numbers directly on the fence. And definitely nicer than that white or gold spray paint, like on the trashcans. Ha. I’ve been informed by other residents of the house (ahem) that the red helps emphasize the good looking door on the back of the house too. 15 bucks and 30 minutes of time. The latch for the back gate was also finished on Saturday, so that really wraps up the whole fence project.
Though there’s obviously still lots of work to be done in the backyard, we’ve come a long way in two years, and we’ve at least crossed the threshold of now being able to go out and enjoy the yard, even if it still feels totally half-finished.
Since it was inauguration weekend here in DC and all, we “inaugurated” the new fire pit that Rachel got me for Christmas with some friends and neighbors on Saturday. One thing we have a lot of is scrap wood in the basement. And when I demo the existing crappy basement walls, I’ll get another big pile of burn-able wood.
And after our first post-baby date to the movies on Inauguration Day to see Les Miserábles, we went back out for the second time and enjoyed beverages by the fire. And then Lily joined us after her nap. She is enthralled by the fire! She just stares at it…
It’s still a work in progress — see the plywood protecting us from the muddy turf and providing a level platform for chairs? — but it’s a far cry from this time last year.
Rachel is getting her planting plan together for the raised beds, and we hope to get that started in February for some of the shoulder season crops, as well as the paver walk which should happen in February (more about that later.) By this summer, we should have a much nicer space for relaxing.
We’ll just need to figure out a way to kill the 834,234 mosquitos that swarm our neighborhood first.
See, I know you’ve been jonesing to see a finished backyard fence, or read about some new project we’ve tackled, but we’ve just been way too busy through the holidays looking after this little lady.
Aren’t you strangely filled with love and forgiveness now for our lack of activity lately? I thought so.
The weeks since Thanksgiving — when we built the raised beds in the backyard, basically the last big project we tackled — was a bit of a blur. We were working frantically at our jobs to clear the decks for the holidays, finishing up our shopping, going to Christmas parties and and then leaving town for ten days to see both of our families in Atlanta for Christmas. Needless to say, almost nothing has been done at the old rowhouse since Thanksgiving, other than decorating for Christmas…and then promptly undecorating on the 11th day of Christmas because our tree was so dried up it was about to fall over on us as we lounged in the living room.
The one thing that has changed is that the fence in the backyard has been completed. All done. Well, save for a latch on the gate that still needs to be installed, but it’s all been completed. You could see the side fence already finished as we were doing the raised bed, and the posts in at the back when I showed off the back steps at the retaining wall, but now it’s all done.
The best part about the new fence, is that it makes it impossible to see the ugly bottom floor of the house from the alley anymore. Awful old garage doors, peeling paint on the concrete, junk under the stairs in the little nook — all of that is invisible now.
We opted for the privacy fence only in the back, because we really enjoy our neighbors on both sides and don’t want to just shut them out. It also keeps things from feeling quite so small and closed-off by having the shorter fences on the side.
All in all, I saved at least 50% compared to every estimate I got from fence/wall companies by going with my friend and talented contractor Kurt for the fence and doing the back retaining wall and steps on my own. To say nothing of building the new raised beds on my own and using stone, which is chronicled here in greater detail.
The next few big steps to come in the backyard are
- Pavers for the walk from the porch stairs all the way to the back steps. I’m having a contractor do this (now in February after some delays), but the cost will mostly be covered by the city through an awesome grant program they have to replace impervious surface with permeable materials to reduce stormwater runoff.
- That walk will create a rectangle of space between the walk and the back fence where I’ll need to turn over the ground big time, enrich it with good soil, and work to plant grass there. Which I guess I’ll be able to mow with scissors it’ll be so small.
- Lastly, garden planning for the raised bed is well underway. We’re hoping to get some of the late winter crops like lettuce in the ground pretty soon. And we have two blueberry bushes ready to go now. But the rest will come in late late winter.
- There will be an area between the walk and the house that I hope to fill in with pavers at some point, but I really just don’t know if I’ll be able to a) afford to pay someone to do that or b) afford to pay for the stones and do it myself. It’s a lower priority at this point.
We don’t make New Year’s resolutions, per se, but this year Rachel and I are finishing up our list of to-dos on the house for 2013, so we’ve got an idea of what’s most important to each of us, and then trying to allocate time to get ‘em all done. Maybe we’ll post our top 10 to-dos here on the blog when we get them figured out. One thing that will help big time with my motivation is the slow return of the sun in the next few months. More daylight after work, please!
The other big news is that we’re having our first contractor meeting tonight to talk about the basement renovation (into a rentable apartment.) I’ll probably be doing the demolition and some of the finish work myself, but we’re having a contractor run that project and I’ll be free to keep working on other projects.
On to the before/afters. Here’s a look at how far the backyard has come since May 2011 in the first picture here, to today. That’s how the backyard was when we moved in, save for the new deck/stairs we built before moving in.
And lastly, a look back at some of the notable steps from there to here. Though we’ve did a few pieces between move-in and this summer, like pulling the hedges down and Jeremy breaking up the concrete, we didn’t really start the backyard in earnest until this fall. The retaining wall, back steps, raised beds and fence were all done basically between September and December 2012.
While going through the desk this weekend I was siftng through a bunch of house related papers and I found the original mls printout for our house listing from 2010. In the description of the house there was this hilarious little nugget.
But before you read it, just go and read any three random blog entries from the last two years anytime for the properly hilarious context:
“Property looks to have good bones, just move in or add fresh paint and some updates.”
Oh haha haha hahaha. Yes, it just needed some fresh paint and some updates.
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The blog has been quiet as work has slowed down, but there’s one small finished project I haven’t chronicled yet, mostly because the story is a difficult one to tell and the words hard to find: the special new tree we planted in our treebox that will grow ever upward and outward in front of our house as a tribute to our brother.
Jeremy, Rachel’s brother, died in March after a freak motorcycle accident not even a block away from his office building in downtown Atlanta.
He was living with us at this time last year. He worked for HOK architects in Atlanta, and because he was working on a project in the DC area with their DC office, he came up to work with them in person and crashed with us — much to our delight. The rest of Rachel’s family was coming for Thanksgiving anyway, so he came up shortly beforehand to start work and stayed through Christmas. He crashed in our guest room and after Christmas, his bosses said he could come back and keep working here basically as long as he wanted, so he came back in January and stayed almost until February.
Jeremy could never sit still for long — he had so much creative energy exploding from his insides that at times you could feel it in the room breaking through. At Thanksgiving he went out and started working on clearing out some of the old hedge root balls from the backyard.
I had asked Jeremy if he could help me break up the concrete from the old driveway in the backyard. I went and borrowed a sledgehammer from a friend and before I could even make plans about exactly which Saturday we would spend (in misery) working on the concrete, Jay went out and tore it all up himself and piled it high in a monstrous stack by the alley. I came home and the project that I thought would take days for the two of us, Jeremy had finished in mere hours on his own.
Of course, we had to get a picture of his conquest, so Jay climbed Mount Concrete and gave a happy smile of victory with sledgehammer in hand before we started loading it into a truck to take to the dump. Took us three loads to get it all.
Jeremy stayed from New Year’s until almost Valentine’s Day, only leaving because he had signed up for a Tough Mudder race in Atlanta and didn’t want to let his teammate down by not showing up. HOK had already flown him up twice, so another return trip wasn’t likely, and besides, I think Jeremy was ready to be back with his dog Julie and his friends in Atlanta.
And then, just a few weeks after he left us, he was gone.
Especially in those difficult days shortly afterward, we often reminded ourselves of the blessings of that time together in this old rowhouse — how God seemingly gave us (and especially Rachel) this beautiful gift of time together and just what we’d need to be able to scrape by without being completely overcome with grief, clinging with white knuckles to the time and memories of those precious few weeks.
We had spent more time together since Thanksgiving 2011 than we had in our previous eight years (of marriage) combined. How many siblings get to live with one of their sisters or brothers for three months after one is married and just be grown-up adult friends living under the same roof, with the days of childhood together long behind?
Jeremy was here to celebrate when we found out our baby-to-be was going to be a girl.
He was here when we took the pictures for making that announcement to the wider world in the room that would one day be Lily’s nursery — a room he also helped renovate.
He was here on the most unseasonably warm February day I can remember when he treated us to a farewell dinner at Red Rocks to say thank you and we sat outside on the patio at the corner of Park and 11th without jackets but with good beer and pizza and just soaked it all up and took bad cellphone pictures in the dark.
On our way to Atlanta for what we knew would surely turn out to be a funeral and not just a hospital visit, we decided somewhere in North Carolina — while speeding toward the painful end of our journey at a mile a minute — that Jeremy’s first niece would carry his name with her forever.
And so Lily Jae was close at hand with me when we finally went to plant “The Jay Tree” in our front treebox.
After one of them reached out to me asking what Rachel would think of it, her friends and former co-workers at Cooper Carry architects gave us a generous gift card to a local nursery for a tree we could plant in our yard to memorialize Jay. Our treebox had been empty and we had waited for more than a year for the free DDOT planting, so we decided to put it in the empty box in front.
We bought a (Western) Pansy Redbud at American Plant in Bethesda and picked it up at the end of September. I got the utilities marked so we could dig a big hole for the tree’s enormous rootball. Then Lily Jae and I checked out the hole.
After Lily’s stamp of approval on the hole and avoiding some conduit and wires that the city never marked (probably wiring for the streetlight 40 feet to the north belonging to DDOT) we dropped the tree in place and filled it in. We filled the hole with dirt and compost/mulch on top and then poured on a ton of water for the first few days.
It’s not much just yet, but it’s our Jay Tree.
In an interesting turn, there’s few things Lily loves to look at more than trees. Pick her up and hold her in your arms by a window in the front or back of the house and she’ll get quiet and crane her head up and stare with her mouth agape at the ancient old trees around our house waving in the breeze. Hypnotized. At church on the second floor of the Dance Institute of Washington on Sundays, you can often catch her gazing at the trees out on 14th Street.
“God sends the wind to make the trees wave at you, Lily,” I often tell her.
As the Jay Tree grows taller over the coming years in front of our house just a few feet from Lily’s window, we’ll tell her all about her Uncle Jay, and how he helped build her backyard she plays in and how he helped build the wall next to her bed, and how the name she carries first belonged to a man who was brave and courageous and wild and loving and kind and true.
“And though he’s gone, that’s his tree right out there, always watching over you outside your window,” we’ll tell her.
“And just like all the others, Lily, God sends the wind to make Uncle Jay’s tree wave to you.”
If you want to support Rachel’s family and Jeremy’s memory, you can support the Jeremy Smith Architecture Scholarship Fund, created by one of his former professors and a host of his friends, perhaps by buying one of these fantastic t-shirts through Etsy. They carry illustrations of the breathtaking lamps that Jay used to build using business cards, accompanied by a quote from my father-in-law. We all got ours at Thanksgiving and took a family picture.
Including little Lily Jae.
In the two months since I finished the backyard retaining wall, getting down to the alley and the trash/recycling cans has required a short jump down. And then a small climb back up.
Because there were no steps…until this weekend.
I could’ve built the steps weeks ago, but I wanted to make sure that they lined up perfectly with the new gate, so I waited until the back gate posts were put in the ground. After we finished the raised beds and after the family left early Saturday morning, I started working on the steps that afternoon
I had a few 6×6 timbers leftover from the retaining wall so I opted for the cheapest way I could think of to build some simple steps and just stacked up 3-foot cut lengths of the timbers. To stretch the few timbers I had without needing more, I cut the bottom couple of timbers that wouldn’t show into two 1-foot sections with a gap between ‘em.
I drove rebar spikes into the bottom of each single stack of timbers to anchor them down to the ground, and then used some 10-inch railroad spikes that I didn’t use on the retaining wall to anchor all the steps and timbers together.
At about 5.5 inches each, two 6×6 timbers together for each stair make an 11-inch stair tread, which is close to the size of a normal stair tread, maybe a little bigger. There are really just two steps — the bottom step is the same level as the alley and not wide enough for two timbers, so I used one 6×6 along with some spare bricks I had in the backyard to complete the bottom step.
I bought two 2x10s and cut those at angles and used them as covers for the side of the steps. This gives the steps a nice finished look and covers up the very rough cut edges of the 6x6s in favor of a smooth flush edge. You probably can’t see the seam in that above picture, but there’s actually a second piece of the 2×10 below the top piece to fill out the entire area.
In keeping with the theme of “cheap,” I ran to Home Depot Sunday night and picked up the plain simple square concrete paver stones — the kind that a lot of folks use as walkway stones — along with 4 bags each of gravel and sand, to “pave” the dirt areas on each side of the steps where we’ll store the recycling and trash cans. The space worked out well: four 16-inch pavers and three 12-inch pavers, with just about an inch of the side touching the alley concrete chopped off with a hammer chisel and sledgehammer.
For laying the pavers, there’s a lot more wiggle room with larger stones like this — the foundation work required for laying small 4×8″ bricks is much more demanding. For these, it’s as simple as digging down an extra inch or two, tamping down the soil really well, pouring in an inch or so of gravel, and then enough sand to cover the gravel and allow you to have some extra above that to level out the area. And then it all gets tamped down again repeatedly.
The stones get laid down one at a time, and if it’s not level, you pick it up and move some sand around. Since these are just going to be places where we store our recycling and trash cans outside of our yard, perfection really isn’t required — we just need something flat that looks decent and isn’t just plain ‘ol dirt. Like the other side of the steps…which I still have to finish, sometime this week hopefully.
Of course, the obligatory before/afters. First is from this summer, the second from September-ish, and the last from this week.
(Also, you can see what I meant in the last post about overlapping the gate line with the raised bed by a few inches. The paver walk will probably just line up with the gate post on the right side and be a little narrower than 36 inches.)
And we’re back with a bang! Yes, we’ve been away since October, but our sweet baby girl (oh, and life in general) has been keeping us so busy that we’ve barely managed to do any projects around the house worth blogging about. But I just had almost a full week off work, so here comes a few posts!
Once again this year Rachel’s family drove up from Athens/Atlanta and spent the entire Thanksgiving week with us here in DC. I worked Monday and then took the rest of the week off, and my father-in-law (the best!) and I started the 25-foot-long raised beds along the north side of the backyard. Interestingly, last year at Thanksgiving, my brother-, father-in-law and I were in the backyard starting to break up concrete, removing more old fencing and digging out old roots and concrete balls from old chain-link fence posts.
My, we’ve come a long way since then, though it sure has moved along at a glacial pace considering where we were a year ago. As a refresher, here’s the initial plan for the backyard that I put together after I completed the new back retaining wall.
The new fence was started a few weeks ago by a good contractor/architect friend who beat all the fence companies I got estimates from in price, awesomeness and general midwestern charm. The fence will be complete at some point, but the big thing I wanted done before Thanksgiving was the north fence — so I could build the raised beds over the Thanksgiving week with all of the free time and extra help.
Opting for stone/concrete is less expensive and a much better long-term solution for the raised beds than good cedar — and that’s before considering the fact that even cedar beds would have to be rebuilt in 10-15 years. A well-crafted stone bed is much more permanent and aesthetically pleasing than wood; more like a bona fide landscaping element than merely a functional raised garden bed. The bonus is that the beds can become extra seating for the patio closest to the house — if we get to that.
I ordered the stacking concrete blocks and some full-sized cinder blocks from Lowe’s for delivery. The plan was to use the stacking blocks for 3 sides and to use normal (cheaper) concrete block against the fence for the side hidden in the back. (The idea is to protect the fence from dirt and moisture to lengthen its lifespan.)
My plan had been for a 36-inch bed in the back. The gate starts about 36 inches from the NW corner, but I failed to think about the fact that the blocks are 8 inches deep, and the concrete blocks for the back were WAY too big at a full 8 inches deep. That’s 16 inches lost from a 36-inch bed. So I went to Galliher and Huguely last minute on Tuesday and bought 4-inch cinder blocks like these at right. To maximize the size of the beds, I decided to make the bed a little wider than the space between the corner and the gate, so it overlaps the gate posts by 6 inches or so. (Picture at the bottom) This is also the reason I scrapped the curve and taper in the bed seen in the sketch above, keeping them the same width all the way back. This sacrificed some eventual patio space, but it’s worth it for the extra gardening room.
I used these Fulton stacking blocks and a much nicer capstone that goes with Lowe’s signature Allen + Roth line of stone products. They look tan in that photo, but it’s a “charcoal and tan blend” that really looks more grey with some brown highlights in it. The other caps were not nearly as smooth on the top, and with the plan to use this wall for extra seating, the higher quality caps were the way to go.
Building the beds
Once again, I was too busy working and forgot to take photos of the process, but it was pretty simple. (This how-to I found awhile back is immensely helpful, btw.)
- Run a straight line with string to align for aligning the front and back, and dig a trench a little wider than the blocks (or as wide as your tamper.)
- On the low end of the yard, I planned to have almost none of the bottom block buried, but for the rest of the bed where the yard is highest, we planned for about two inches to be buried. That, combined with 1-2 inches for gravel or sand to fill and level out the trench, meant that we dug about 3-5 inches down. The goal is a level trench, though an inch or so of slope across a 25-foot bed isn’t too bad and barely noticeable.
- After digging the trench we tamped everything down really good and poured in an inch or two of gravel. More tamping, and more checking to see if the trench was level with the four-foot level (and a line level on the string, measuring down to the bottom of the trench to check heights.)
- When placing the stones, only the bottom run takes a lot of time, but it’s the most important. We would place a stone, check the level front to back, side to side, and over the previous few stones, and then move the gravel or sand around below it to level it out and re-place. It took us about an hour and a half to set the entire bottom course of stones.
- After finishing the bottom run it’s as simple as stacking the blocks on top and making sure they’re properly centered on each gap. We used masonry adhesive just for the caps on the top. (Dad and I trying to get the caps installed before dinner on Wednesday below.)
- On the back cinder blocks, we drove 2-foot rebar spikes through the holes and into the ground to keep the cinder blocks from moving, though they’ll likely just lean against the fence once the dirt goes in. Two cinder blocks on top of each other (8″ each) is the same height as four stacking blocks (4″ each), so that made digging the trench easy since it was the same on all sides.
Voila! A half finished wall.
Half finished, because Lowe’s shorted me 17 stacking blocks. So on Wednesday, we had to drive down to Alexandria on Tuesday to pick those up, and I proposed a deal to the very helpful customer service person: come back and pick up the pallet of too-larger cinder blocks without charging me the $75 delivery fee, and I’ll take the 17 blocks that you shorted me right now. Deal!
We couldn’t get the (heavy!!!) 30 caps that we needed in our Honda Accord along with the 17 blocks without breaking the suspension, so we bought what we could and made a second trip to Lowe’s in New Carrolton (much closer) on Wednesday afternoon to get those.
For the caps on the corners and the curves, these blocks do not break well with a hammer chisel and sledgehammer — I’ve broken two already trying to cut them that way, but I did buy extra figuring that might happen at the hands of this masonry ignoramus. So I’m going to have to borrow an angle grinder or something for cutting stone.
On Friday, we went to DPW at Ft. Totten to get a full truckload of the amazing black compost that the city provides for free (and burn off as many turkey calories as possible.) After an hour and four tired arms later, we had the truck unloaded into the bed, and things were looking finished.
On the way back from Lowe’s in Maryland, we stopped by Community Forklift and found these great matching brick-sized pavers to put on top of the cinder blocks in the back. They just sit on the top of the cinder blocks turned on their side, and the dirt will push them against the fence. This gives a nice finished top to the back edge without having to split the fancy (and expensive) caps in half, and even give a little extra two inches of height on the back edge of the bed.
Total price for this entire raised bed project? Give or take (these aren’t all the exact amounts, some I estimated from memory), about $530. Not bad.
120 Pavestone retaining wall blocks $217.20
35 Pavestone caps $104.30
38 cinder blocks $60.04
39 Community Forklift Bricks $19.50
Bags ‘o gravel and sand $63.00
Stone delivery $75.00
Tomorrow, I’ll show more of the fence work, along with the steps in the back and the new paver areas for the trash and recycling cans — finished one of those late Sunday night!
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give an enormous shout-out to my father-in-law Paul, whom I love and without whom I never would have finished this before going back to work after Thanksgiving. He endured my maniacal focus on getting this done and driving all over DC to get materials so we could make that happen. Here’s to you, dad!
As always, we close with some before and afters:
Our new (2010) kitchen pantry, while a drastic improvement over what we had before we remodeled the kitchen, still left something to be desired. And that something would be “better storage.”
Back when we bought the house, the pantry had an angled front wall at the back edge of the kitchen. Though it was physically larger than it is now, it had an in-swinging door which meant that it was nearly impossible to get to everything behind the door without closing the door back behind you. And it also meant that it took up valuable kitchen space with the angled nook.
We tore out the pantry entirely and rebuilt the front wall straight, adding in a pocket door with frosted glass that we stumbled upon one night at Home Depot.
You can see in the old before/after plans how much space it added to the kitchen (at the top of the plans). This meant more counter space and in that little space there at the end, we ended up adding a tall floor to ceiling cabinet unit. Huge difference in the kitchen.
When the pantry was done, we had a nice square-ish room, but no actual shelving. Similar to how other things came together very fast in those crazy days before we moved in, we didn’t put any proper shelves in the pantry when we finished the kitchen. We just dragged in a spare metal storage rack into the pantry to make do.
Though this was far better than cans and dry good sitting on the ground, it didn’t make the best use of space. For one, the number of shelves was limited. It didn’t use the full width of the pantry and the depth of the shelves made it hard to see everything. And it didn’t go anywhere near the full height of the pantry.
Since I’ve gotten so good at closet shelving after doing three different closets in the last few months, I decided to bring those skills to bear on the kitchen pantry. It wasn’t an option to put shelves on both sides of the pantry as before, since the door opening is so close to one side, with all the depth on the other side.
So I used the closetmaid/rubbermaid shelving yet one more time and put in a track for 17″ shelves on the one side, and used 12″ shelves below the window to wrap around and get a little bit more storage space. (There’s a great rack for hanging pots and other utensils on the right out of frame below that we put up awhile back.)
After an afternoon of work a couple of weeks ago, we had a much more organized pantry. With lots more room for storing things that rarely get used up on the higher shelves.
Subtle difference in the photos, but it’s a huge difference in space and quality.
We’ve been planning on raised beds all along in the backyard running along almost the entire length of the northern fence. This is partially because it’s easier to tend a garden when you don’t have to get on your knees to do so, and because we want fresh new soil for planting things we’re going to eat, rather than the paint chips/construction debris/polluted soil that’s currently there now.
But what to build the raised beds out of? Our basic qualifications are that it needs to be relatively cheap, not require total replacement in less than 10 years, and be aesthetically pleasing and jibe with the overall project.
These qualifications did not lead us where I thought it would as far as materials go.
When we first started talking about this, of course Rachel suggested stone of some kind, and though I certainly loved the look of stacked stone of some kind — like a flagstone bed I saw a friend of mine build on his own over on Capitol Hill — I also just assumed that stone was likely to be much more expensive than wood, and on a project where we were cutting costs everywhere possible and doing as much work as we could by ourselves in order to realize as much of the whole vision, it would be a little out of reach.
Pressure treated wood was out, because I don’t want those chemicals near food we’re going to eat — no matter what the EPA or whomever else says about how safe they are. Which really just left cedar, redwood or some other untreated ultra-hard wood as the only other option.
I started pricing Western Red Cedar after doing some research, and after discovering that 6×6 timbers like I used for the retaining wall were more than three times the price of their pressure-treated counterparts, I realized that this whole bed was going to be crazy expensive, right? Even 2×6′s and 2x8s combined with 4x4s as corner posts was more expensive than I anticipated. And even with cedar, left untreated and up against perpetual moisture, they’d have to be rebuilt at some point in 7-10 years.
So I started thinking about stone. I wanted something that a) wouldn’t require mortar (I’m no mason) and b) wouldn’t break the bank. Doing something with real flagstone or the like would be far too expensive — while my friend’s bed was a small corner of their narrow yard, this bed in our yard is going to span more than 25 feet, which means a lot of stone.
But is there something that’s not expensive cut stone but similar? With just a little bit of looking around, I started to see good-looking applications with these pretty common stackable concrete blocks.
They’re trapezoidal shaped, which means you can create curved walls without having to buy “corner” blocks or using masonry tools to cut them all down. They have a lip on the back, which provides the ability to hold back dirt as a retaining wall or bed up to a certain height and they come in a nice variety of colors and shapes.
The same manufacturers also make matching smooth concrete caps to go on top to give the walls a nice finished look. (While they say you can just dry-stack everything, I’m going to use some masonry adhesive on every run to ensure they stay together.)
Because we’re taking the raised beds from 3 feet wide down to 2 feet around where the walk runs into them (to provide for more patio space), having something that gives me the ability to curve is really going to add a nice flourish to the project. You can see the general feel in the photo from the roof with the beds sketched in at right.
But best of all, as I started calculating how many blocks I’d need (using cinder blocks for the back wall against the fence where no one will see), I was more than a little shocked to find out that using these stones instead of cedar could be a difference of as much as $400. The stones come in different prices, of course, and on the cheaper end of the spectrum, I figure we can do the entire raised bed for about $350, plust the gravel and sand for the base. Cedar was going to run at least $600 for 2-inch-thick walls, as much as $750 or $800 for 4x4s or bigger. And they’d have to be replaced in a decade or less.
We have a winner.
So where do things stand on the whole project? The retaining wall is finished and the yard has been filled in and graded out somewhat.
I’ve finished talking to contractors for the pavers, and I think I’ve decided who we’re going to use, though we haven’t quite decided if we’re going to do the walkway and the patio now, or just the walkway now (which will almost totally be covered by the DC grant program) and then the patio later on, potentially on my own. The likely paver contractor won’t do the work until November after the fence and beds are already done — he’s too busy right now.
My friend Kurt is going to get started on the fence in mid-October, as soon as he gets himself married next weekend and enjoys his honeymoon. I’ll likely wait until he finishes the fence before ordering the stone and building the raised bed so I can get it as close to the fence as possible, though I may do all the excavation work before then.
I have to do some digging in any case to remove the last of the concrete from the left track of the driveway — I realized that it would get in the way of a) the fence posts, b) the base for the stone walls, and also c) any roots for plants that want to go deeper than 16 inches. Which means I’ll be back out in the yard with the pick and the sledge, breaking up another 50 square feet of concrete soon. Yay.
One thing I won’t have to do, though, is get rid of the last of that enormous pain-in-the-ass stump that was in the way of the bed. That bad boy came out on Sunday after lots of digging, picking, sawzalling, chopping and prying with an old fence post.
So whaddya think? Concrete blocks a good idea for the raised bed? Surprised that they’re so much cheaper than wood?
A staple of DC rowhomes (as well as most rowhomes from the same period elsewhere) is the tradition of hand-painted house numbers in the transom over the front door. A tradition which has sadly been replaced in most “flipped” homes around here with the fine tradition of whatever crappy numbers Home Depot sells nailed to the brick on the front door. Lots of character, that.
When we repainted the front door way back in March 2011, we took out the inexpensive (read: crappy) house numbers that were tacked to the door itself. If there ever were original painted transom numbers on any of our block of 6 houses at some point, they’re all gone now.
We knew that we wanted to do proper transom numbers at some point, we just didn’t know exactly where to find a modern-day artisan to hand-paint numbers on a transom. And I still don’t know if such a person exists here in DC. I was about to start searching online for answers when Glenn from House Number Lab found me first and left a comment here on the blog.
Hi guys – Great site. Great renovation. I’m finishing one in Capitol Hill on a similar house. What an adventure. Anyway, during the renovation I found it hard to find cool address / house numbers you put in the transom so I started a web based business that does this. Check us out at www.housenumberlab.com. We do numbers in a lot of historic reproduction styles with 22k gold (burnished, matte and swirl), metallics and premium cast vinyl…
That was more than a year ago. Which means that we’ve had no numbers on the front of our house at all for a year and a half. Well, that’s not quite true. When we were trying to figure out which size of transom numbers to order, we put up some 4-inch “numbers” to see if they were the right size. And then they stayed there for awhile until I ordered, and then for a month or so after I got the numbers in the mail before I could get them installed.
While it would be great to get hand-painted numbers on the transom, this is the next best thing — and might be even better since the paint won’t fade and the numbers are actually on the inside away from the elements.
We ordered our numbers in 4″ matte gold and were persuaded to go with the extruded drop shadow when Glenn sent us a proof with a few different options. Rachel and I don’t care for gold, but gold is the color of most other Petworth transom numbers (as well as in most of the city) and we wanted to match the original historical look of the neighborhood.
You can order numbers and have them delivered straight away, or request a proof so you can see what they’ll look like. I was glad we did since we changed our mind on the shadow after seeing the mockup. Glenn is great to deal with and the whole process is super easy. In a week or so we had our letters in the mail and put them on the mantle so they could lay down flat over a week before install. Or six weeks. Whatever. I was busy.
If you do order numbers from House Number Lab, he sends you a video and step by step directions that make it a cinch to put up. I was still pretty nervous, though, since there’s no margin for error and once you put the gold down with the wet installation after a minute or two, it’s there to stay.
After putting a centerline level marks on the outside of the glass with a dry erase marker, you wet the glass with a special adhesive that comes with the numbers and then put the gold numbers down on the glass and then squegee out the liquid and air bubbles. After a short wait — moment of truth — you can peel the backing back, leaving the gold numbers on.
Then you do basically the same thing for the shadow, except without the liquid, and the backing can come off right away. More squeegee-ing to get the air bubbles off and you’re good to go.
And now the pizza/chinese food/UPS delivery folks will know which house is ours without having to look at the two neighbors’ houses to find a number.
And my most favorite thing about the numbers is the shadow cast into the house by the streetlights every night after dark. Check out that fantastic old wavy glass too.
Anyway, if you’re in the market for some transom numbers (or numbers/letters for pretty much any other similar application), definitely check into House Number Lab. We were very satisfied with the final product.