Monday, July 11, 2011

Sunday in the park, with garden

Sunday afternoons are so lovely. It's especially wonderful when we get up and out early enough to get to Mass at 8:30 so that we're home early with the whole day ahead of us. But what to do with that whole day? Typically we either take the train into Manhattan and wander around or go for a drive. Margaret was strongly lobbying for the latter this past Sunday. Eric pulled up a map and made us a list of parks we'd never been to while I put together a picnic dinner.

Making dinner has been a blast lately. Our garden is doing really well. All the lettuce sprouted but between our late start (we could have planted in mid-March) and slugs it was awhile before we got our first harvest. The slugs had us stumped for awhile: they'd emerge each evening just after dark and munch our young leaves down to nothing. After a bit of research we decided that hand-harvesting was the best bet. We--and by "we" I mean Eric unless the kids are up late--keep a slug stick stuck in one corner of our planter box. Each evening we head out, use the stick to pull off any slugs we find and drop them in a cup of salt water. I love animals but I love lettuce more.

Once we got on top of the slugs the lettuce went crazy. We've made lots and lots of salads and we just pulled out some bolted plants and started a second planting. We'll see how that goes. One of the lettuce varieties didn't do as well so we put some parsley in that space.

And we added a mint plant to one end although we hear that mint spreads so we might move that to a dedicated planter.

We also have cilantro and basil on the roof of our shed.

Between our garden and our weekly produce deliveries we've been eating well: lots of salad, lots of pesto, a yummy caprese salad for our picnic last night. We are definitely planting a much bigger garden next year. I never would have thought that container gardening would work so well.

But back to our Sunday. We opted to explore Palisades Park which is on the Hudson River, straddling the George Washington Bridge on the New Jersey side. It's a long, skinny park and it is very pretty but it is largely hiking/biking with some small marinas along the water. We were hoping for more of a "picnic spot with picturesque view." The first place we stopped seemed to promise this but after a few minutes we noticed that the water on the path was rapidly encroaching on our bench. Who knew the Hudson River was tidal?

We found a nice little picnic area and enjoyed our dinner. We are still loving Joseph's FreeWheel. It's great to see him getting around on sloped, bumpy, thorn-riddled terrain.

And here's a couple shots of my new haircut, courtesy of me. I've tried a couple hair salons since leaving Minnesota and the results was always a bad hair cut and less money in my wallet. So I did a little googling, got out my scissors and had at it.

I needed to do a couple of rounds over a day or two to get close to what I was going for but I'm pretty happy with the result. And it was free! Can't complain about spending zero dollars on a decent haircut. Eric has proclaimed it the best haircut I've ever had.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

How do I do it?

Love these rings . . . .

I get this question a lot and I've gotten it quite a bit the last few weeks. How do I renovate an apartment and blog about it and not neglect the children? Am I superwoman?

I thought it might be helpful to take a minute to try and clarify some of the behind-the-scenes logistics that go on around here. First, pretty much anytime "I" am doing something involving long stretches of concentration or power tools, you can assume that all the kids are asleep (rare) or that Eric is watching them. He's a teacher, remember, and doesn't have busy summers. His summer course was canceled last minute this year and that was the final impetus that decided us in favor of spiffing things up in the rental unit. He has plenty of independent work he'd like to be doing but we both knew that being landlords would be equivalent to taking on a part-time job and that's what we've been doing the last few weeks.

Look how I only sort of tip to the side when I'm in a highchair.

Even smaller projects, like building a nightstand, are things I do on the weekend when Eric is putting in time with the kids. It's a fun hobby for me and Eric supports it and it's the kind of thing I tend to blog about. But it's not like I'm operating a furniture store on the side or anything.

Also, the work we put it on things like this is pretty evenly divided. I'm the main blogger around here because Eric has plenty of writing projects of the sort that earn money or advance his career. It makes for more interesting reading to write in the first person so I only write about my half of things. I also tend to do the more interesting stuff. Anyway, I'd certainly rather read about paint color than about the experience of extracting 8000 staples from a wooden floor. But Eric is very generous about taking on some of the grunt work and (literal) heavy lifting that I don't want to--or physically can't--do so that I have the freedom to do fun stuff like finish floors and paint. He is also more gung-ho about plumbing and electrical work which are two things I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. He's pretty aware of the risks involved and he doesn't do anything too complicated--we're not afraid to call professionals for the hard stuff. But no way do I want to hook up a dishwasher.

And we both kind of enjoy this sort of work. Not that we have very long experience, of course, but I think we're a pretty good team. Our approaches to DIY projects complement each other nicely. I like to do things "right" and Eric likes to figure out how to make do and rig something up. Usually the best solution for our budget and skill set is something in between. Our too-short kitchen counter, for example: If money and time had been no object I would have had us remove the counters, pry them apart, level the base cabinets, buy a new short section and cut it correctly the second time around. Eric thought we should just leave it or maybe jam something in there. In the end, we did use his solution but then I made it look nice and it worked out fine.

Wonder how many fingers I can suck at once . . .

So how do I do it? With a lot of help and by temporarily making these sorts of things a high priority. We didn't do any school during June. I didn't clean my own house at all last week. We didn't order take out but we didn't eat any very impressive meals. Eric didn't get any independent writing projects done. But it wasn't necessary to neglect the children. We only had a babysitter on Friday when it was really crunch time. The kids sometimes hang around when we're working on something but they respect power tools and they are good at keeping their distance. We're very careful to unplug things immediately and the kids have shoes with better toe protection than mine.

I couldn't be happier that our early adventures in home improvement are going so well. I've always been extremely over-optimistic and Eric is always very pessimistic when it comes to these sorts of things and I think we are starting to meet more in the middle (though he did just ask me to research how we could install a roll-in shower--maybe we'll try something simpler next!)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My strong opinions about paint

I've never really painted anything in my life until last week. I have big plans for paint in our own apartment but I haven't tackled anything yet. The presence of lots of furniture and small children makes it a fairly significant undertaking. And I just wasn't sure what I would be getting into painting an entire room. Typically, a rental apartment is completely repainted in between tenants but ours had been repainted just before the sale so we initially thought we wouldn't do any painting at all. But the more we worked in the upstairs apartment the more we realized that one bedroom and dining room as well as most of the trim would really need some freshening up. The bedroom was sporting several unsightly cracks and the dining room was scuffed in some spots. My Aunt Deb was here for a short visit and gave me the advice (based on her long experience being a landlord) that tenants will take care of an apartment better when it's as "bright and shiny" as possible at move-in.

And while I'm certainly not given to strong opinions in general, I did develop a few based on my rather limited experience of painting those two rooms. And, of course, I'm going to share them with you if only so that when someone asks me for painting advice down the road I can point them here.

First, a word about the paint itself. Since we were doing a lot of shopping at Home Depot and since Behr paint was on sale I decided to get some of that. I bought the Ultra Pure White off the shelf and used that for the cabinets and, as I said, it took three coats to get a nice finish. I also touched up all the trim everywhere in the apartment with this paint. The color was identical--or very nearly so--to what was already on the trim and it blended in fine.

Then I moved on to painting the walls in the bedroom. I chose Behr's "Gobi Desert" which is a nice neutral beige. I liked the color just fine but it was a heck of a lot of work getting it on the walls. It required two coats which I definitely expected but it took 1.5 gallons to cover the tiny 10x10 room. This annoyed me. The paint was applied thinly and evenly but it still took a lot to cover everything.

I'd only bought two gallons, assuming I'd be able to do two rooms with that amount of paint. Time was at an extreme premium--this was about 24 hours before the tenants were due to arrive--so I decided to get the paint and the rest of the odds and ends we needed at the hardware store in our neighborhood. We've long known about the little "Continental Hardware" on the main street of our neighborhood. It's good but the selection is limited. When we moved we started using a different freeway route home and noticed that the same people also have a bigger store tucked away on the extreme edge of town and we'd been meaning to check it out. We finally wandered in part way through this renovation project and we were impressed. It's huge and comprehensive and the service is good. As for paint, however, they pretty much just do Benjamin Moore. I know some people are huge fans of Ben Moore paint but the higher cost had scared me off. But on our first trip to the "Big" Continental I was pleased to see that it was not as much more than Behr as I'd thought (averaging about $35/gallon whereas Behr is around $27). When I needed paint in a hurry for the dining room I decided I had a good opportunity to compare the two paints. Even if I didn't end up liking the Benjamin Moore better, the convenience would be worth it: Home Depot is a 25-minute drive; Continental is a 3-minute drive.

We also decided to try a different color. Well, actually, I was planning to get some "Bleeker Beige" which is virtually identical to the "Gobi Desert" but Eric said that earth tones remind him too much of Al Gore and he'd rather stick with yellow which was the color already in the dining room. I did not particularly like the existing color and we had no idea what it was so we decided to just pick a different yellow. We've been considering painting our own dining room yellow and here's where having a rental apartment comes in really handy: we could experiment with the color upstairs! I feel like yellow is a risky color. I didn't want it too pastel. I didn't want it too mustardy. I didn't want it so flat and washed out that it looked dirty. I didn't want crayon yellow. I'd heard that Ben Moore's Hawthorne Yellow is a good bet and I happened to have that color card as well as a few others so I pulled them out and without saying anything about any of the shades asked Eric which one he'd pick. He immediately pointed to the Hawthorne Yellow so we decided to go with it.

Based on my paint use-up rate in the tiny bedroom I bought two gallons for the much bigger dining room and started the paint job at about 9:00. As I was cutting in I was feeling pessimistic. The color looked to me just like the pastel-yellow that had already been in the room. But I kept at it and, after an ice cream break got out the roller. It was amazing. Eric was working in the next room and he kept teasing me about my euphoric exclamations about working with this paint. It coated the roller nice and evenly and rolled on to the wall so easily. And once I was filling in entire walls, I started to like the color more, too. I kept rolling and rolling, barely even breaking a sweat and then noticed something. I was barely using any paint. I did the entire room with a half gallon of paint. I figured that even when I came back to do the second coat in the morning I'd only use one gallon on a pretty large room. But I came back the next morning and realized that 1) the color was even more fantastic dry and 2) no second coat would be necessary.

I'm a total Benjamin Moore fan now. I'm sure that the existing yellow paint on the walls helped with the one-coat coverage. There were actually just a couple of thinner spots that I touched up later, but those spots were enough to show that the rest of the walls were evenly coated. And now we have another gallon-and-a-half left over for our dining room although the timing on that is to be determined. Eric is now totally sold on the power of a good paint job to transform a room and he loves the color. He's not totally sold on the need to move all the books out of the dining room so I can paint behind the shelves (the bookcases are backless). Here are a couple shots trying to capture the color: it's quite bright and cheery in full sun but in other light looks more gold and muted. Very versatile color.

You aren't "supposed to" use bright white trim in a yellow room but it's what I had and I like the crisp, classic look of it.

So, my two cents on two popular brands of paint: skip the Behr and pay the extra for Benjamin Moore. Totally worth it.

Now, a word about equipment and approach. When I bought the Behr paint I also bought brushes, rollers, trays, an edger, an extension pole and whatnot. I generally chose the cheapest version of everything. When I bought the second round of paint I upgraded several of the components and I was much happier. Here's a few tips based on my (still limited) experience:

When it comes to things you are going to hold in your hand for long stretches, comfort is key. I switched from a wooden roller frame and wooden extension pole to ones with more of a padded grip and it made a huge difference. I got blisters painting the first room and was able to paint the second room despite the blisters. You also want the roller frame and extension pole to have a nice tight fit so there's no give while rolling up high.

I like to use a trim cup when cutting in since it is easier to get up and down a ladder with something smaller. The cheap plastic one from Home Depot was very uncomfortable but I was very happy when I switched to the red and black one pictured. My hand slid through the handle easily, and it has a really strong magnet to hold brushes up out of the paint when you are climbing up and down the ladder. Nice.

Throughout all the painting projects I used a variety of roller covers in a variety of price points. I didn't notice an appreciable difference in the result. Roller covers are, technically, washable but they take forever to wash. In the future I will get the least expensive roller cover that does the job and toss after each use. It's just not worth my time to wash and reuse. Even the "expensive" roller covers cost only a few dollars each. It is really important that the cover fit really snugly to the frame but this depends more on getting a good frame than on the roller, I think.

I feel the opposite about paint brushes. A good paint brush is very important but you usually pay for the quality. If they are cleaned immediately and thoroughly they will keep going for a long while. They are much faster to clean than roller covers and the cleaning effort is totally worth it. When buying brushes I just picked up the best thing available at each store. Here's two I really loved pictured along with my brush comb (for cleaning out dried bits of paint):

The one with the blue handle is a Wooster Shortcut from Home Depot. It's fantastic for edging and trim work and the nice short handle is very nice to use (you hold these brushes like a pencil, not by the tip of the handle). When I bought the second round of paint I wanted to get a second once since I was doing a lot of painting all at once with a couple different colors I needed more than one. They didn't carry the Wooster brush so I bought the Elder and Jenks brush instead. It's also a 2" angled trim brush and I actually liked it a bit more. It has a nice thumb indentation and the longer bristles made it nicer to use.

Brushes that didn't work as nicely for me included the Purdy angled brush. The long handle made it awkward and the narrower size was annoying. I also have a 4" brush from Redtree (a Newark company!) that was used for the floors. It was okay but a brush with longer bristles would have been easier to use, I think. The only other option when I bought this one was a brush from Benjamin Moore. It did look nicer but it costs over twice as much.

As for cutting in or "edging", I used two different approaches. I decided up front that I was going to skip painter's tape. I've seen professional jobs with and without tape and I've seen amateur jobs with and without tape. My take-away from these observations is that you can get good at any method you choose to stick with. I personally prefer to keep things as simple as possible and cut down on time-consuming prep work. In the first room I used an edger from Shurline (pictured above). These come with pads that you dip in the paint (or, as I did, paint with a brush) and then roll them along the trim and ceiling for a nice, clean line. They work pretty well at eye-level but less well on an extension pole. I made a lot of mistakes with the edger. I also thought the color and texture of the paint looked considerably different than the rolled on paint (it's different when you brush, too, but the difference seemed more pronounced with the edger). I had to do a fair amount of touch-up work and then had an edge to clean up after I was done.

In the second room I cut in the entire room free hand with my trim brush. It felt slower but it didn't actually take me any longer and I didn't really make any mistakes. I think I'll save the edger for painting stairwells (no way am I going up on a ladder in a stairwell!) and otherwise stick to using an angled brush.

Finally, I didn't use a drop cloth. I put everything on a big garbage bag in the middle of the room. I dripped a couple times but I just kept a wet rag handy and cleaned up the drips immediately. The professionals who painted our last apartment made a much bigger mess than I. I also highly recommend my ten-in-one multi tool pictured with my roller frame and trim cup above. Among it's ten uses are opening paint cans, pounding them shut again, and opening bottles. Of beer. Totally essential.

As a brief aside, I was glad to see that pretty much all the painting supplies I used were made in the USA. You don't see that too much these days. Anyone know why that would be the case with paint brushes? And feel free to offer up your own painting tips in the comments. I have a lot more rooms to paint and next time we turn over that apartment we'll need to paint the whole thing. I'm all for hearing anything to make the job even easier next time around.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The new counter tops

Remember the old kitchen counter top? The counters in our tenants' kitchen was usable--people had been living with it for years before we moved in. In fact, the owner of this house lived on the second floor before we bought it. But whenever we showed someone the kitchen in person the counters were the first thing they commented on. It was old, beat-up laminate in a wood grain pattern. The miter corner was not joined at all and there was a little piece of molding resting in the wide crack instead. It looked bad and interrupted the function of what limited counter space there was.

We spent a couple of days dragging the kids around Home Depot and Ikea exploring options. We actually really liked several of the options at Ikea. They had a few laminate patterns that were fairly nice and also a sealed butcher block counter. And the price was right! We could have gotten all the counter we needed for less than $100. But there was one big problem with the Ikea counters: no backplash. I'm not a huge backsplash fan myself but the old counters had a 4" integrated backsplash that rose to meet that faux tile sheet of plastic with the stick on green leaves. As you may have intuited by now, I think that wall treatment is pretty horrendous (and it's even worse in person: all chipped and spotted). We talked it over and I, in my usual burst of pre-project optimism said, "I don't think tiling is that hard. Maybe we should just put in a tiled backsplash." And Eric, in an extremely uncharacteristic burst of co-optimism said, "Okay, sure."

So that was our plan: Ikea counters, new tile backsplash. We headed into Home Depot with this plan in mind. We confirmed that the laminate counters available for special order there were a lot more expensive than at Ikea and we browsed some tile. Then, purely by chance, we wandered past the section of in-stock, post form laminate countertop. They sure don't advertise this option! There are three or four pattern options and it is sold with both straight and mitered ends in a variety of lengths. And it has an integrated 4" backsplash. And it was pricing out to less than $200. We considered for a few minutes and realized that we had no idea what we'd find under that sheet of faux-tile plastic. And we realized that we'd probably be biting off more than we could chew adding yet another brand new project to our list.

That was a wise move. We tore up the kitchen the next day and we could see behind the old backsplash that we'd be dealing with at least two layers of old tile. As much as I hate the plastic backsplash, we decided to just go with it for now.

We were able to transport the countertop sections home in our van fairly easily. I wasn't able to convince the guys at Home Depot to load the ten foot section in the car for me. They were pretty well convinced that a section of laminate countertop firmly wedged between seats the entire length of the car could defy all laws of physics and somehow attack my baby on the way back home. They insisted on loading it onto the roof rack instead.

The countertop sections in stock at Home Depot come in several standard lengths. We bought a ten-foot section and a four-foot section, both of which had one end already mitered to meet in the corner. We just needed to cut the four-foot end down to the size we needed, cut the sink hole, and join the corner. Simple, right? Sort of. We suspected that the previous countertop corner had not been joined because either 1) the previous owner liked to take short cuts and 2) the corner wasn't square. We were right on both counts. We were able to determine fairly quickly that the corner wasn't square. But how to work with that situation?

If we could have dry fit both counter sections at the same time, it would have been obvious what to do, I think. But we had to cut the shorter end down to get it to fit at all. We thought and talked and thought some more. Eric measured, I cut.

I'm more scared of power tools than he is which makes me more careful which makes me more precise in my cuts. We put the piece in place and it looked promising.

Then we put the long section up and we had a gap just like the old counters had had. We weren't worried because we planned to actually install the miter bolts underneath that help join up and seal that seam. Eric was the hero to crawl under the counter and have at it while I stood up (holding Gregory at this point, I think) telling him how things were lining up.

In the end . . . it didn't exactly work.

The mitered corner was almost, but not quite, perfectly flush. And the whole section was almost a half inch short where it met the cabinets.

This is the one point in the whole project where we honestly knew the "right" way to do something and we just chose not to. If I could go back and do one thing over it would be to first level the base cabinets in the kitchen. I think that one step would have fixed a lot of the "square" problems and helped that seam quite a bit. But it was a vast improvement over the previous situation.

And as for the half inch short situation, we fixed it:

We primed a piece of scrap plywood and jammed it into the gap. Then I ran a bead of caulk on either side of it, let it dry, and painted the whole thing. It looks pretty darn good.

Once the counters were in place we cut the sink hole. We read lots and lots of online tutorials about how to do this and several articles said it could be done after the counter is installed. This method might work on new, standard cabinets. But it didn't work for us. And the counter was already glued in place. If you ever install a countertop--cut the sink hole first!

I won't go into all the details but it involved lots and lots of Eric measuring things, breaking jigsaw blades (not the saw itself which I may never let him touch again!), and unconventional use of 1" drill bits. We definitely didn't use a recommended approach. But the sink got back in and Eric successfully reconnected all the plumbing and installed a dishwasher.

This, all told, took much of two days though there was also a good deal of painting going on at the same time. By the end of this project we both felt a bit mentally exhausted from the sheer volume of large tasks we'd just done for the first time (I had made exactly two-and-a-half circular saw cuts prior to cutting into an expensive piece of countertop).

But the end result was completely worth it. We went from this:

To this:

I think it's an improvement. I didn't have time to nicely "stage" the space (ugly crooked curtains!) because I think I took this picture about one minute before the new tenants were due to arrive. We did not replace the green floor or paint the paneling but we may do the floor next time we turn over the apartment or down the road if our current tenants end up staying for a few years.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Kitchen Cabinets

Part of our big kitchen overhaul for our upstairs tenants was to repaint the kitchen cabinets. I'm a big lover of natural wood, especially when it's beautifully crafted and carefully finished. Unfortunately, neither of these things was true of these cabinets. The very odd arrangement of shelves, doors, and drawers was difficult to make sense of. We asked ourselves over and over through this entire renovation, "What were they thinking?" The doors were pretty much just slabs of wood that had been shellacked within an inch of their lives--hinges and all. It was streaky and drippy and ugly.

The drawer pulls and knobs were even worse--ugly brass-like edges with a wood-like center.

The first thing we did was pull off all the doors and pull out all the drawers. This, of course, took much longer than we expected thanks to the thick layer of varnish over everything. Eric worked at getting the doors down and I worked at getting the hardware off and after a few hours we had a stack of doors, a bunch of drawers, and two zip-locs full of ugly hardware.

The next step was to rough up the finish on the doors so they'd accept primer and paint. This step isn't always necessary but, as I've said a few times already, these really needed it. I didn't completely strip the wood, I just took off the shine:

That step took a couple hours (doing just the front of each door).

Next I used painter's tape to lay out a large plastic drop cloth in the front room and laid out all the cabinet doors. This part is probably the biggest obstacle to taking on this project--it's hard to find the space to lay out cabinet doors so they have a few days to completely dry. I used inexpensive mini rollers to roll a coat of oil-based primer over the front and edges of each door and I brushed primer all over the face frames and sides of the cabinets themselves.

The actual priming and painting went very quickly. It took me about an hour per coat to do all the cabinetry and doors. The disappointing thing was that it all required a coat of primer and three coats of paint to look nice and finished and even. My plan was to use white paint on the cabinets and use the same white paint on the paneled walls in the kitchen and all the trim throughout the house. Thinking ahead to the potential for yearly (or even more frequent) apartment turnovers, I wanted an off-the-shelf shade of white that would be easy to grab quickly and keep around a gallon or two at a time. So I went with Behr's Ultra Pure White in Semi Gloss. I don't exactly recommend it. I made the color decision standing in the middle of Home Depot with a screaming baby while Eric was trying to get a quote on countertops. We were running late and I didn't have time to give the paint color decision my usual agonizingly obsessive treatment. And, for some reason, I thought it was urgent I buy the paint that day. As if I wouldn't be back to Home Depot again for weeks (when, in fact, I think I went three more times before even getting to the paint step). I went to the paint shelf, saw that there were several "off-the-shelf" shades of white, ran to the color chip rack, randomly grabbed a whole bunch of whites trying to figure out what they all were, gave up when I couldn't find them all, thought "It's white, how much can it matter?", and ran back to grab two gallons of the Ultra Pure. Dumb. I know perfectly well that color matters quite a bit.

I put the Ultra Pure White on the cabinets first and after two coats I was in the middle of panicking when Eric wandered up and said, "Oh, I don't really like this shade of white." (This from a guy who rolls his eyes at my enormous collection of paint chip cards). I had a mini-meltdown and considered starting over. Instead, I calmed down a bit, rolled on a third coat and then touched up some of the trim. The shade was virtually identical to what was already on the trim and the color looks much, much better when it isn't under flourescent lights. But it is very bright. And I'm not sure that I shouldn't have gone with High Gloss paint for the cabinet doors. But William walked across a few of the doors after they were dry but before they were installed so I was able to see that the finish was nice and "scrubbable."

The hardware solution I came up with is one of my favorite things about the whole kitchen project. Cabinet hardware is expensive. The least expensive option was knobs from Ikea that I only sort of liked and they would have run me $35 or so. But there were also the hinges to worry about. They were a coppery color and gooped with varnish. I really didn't want to go to the trouble of replacing the hinges and having to fill all the old holes and drill all the new holes for new hardware. Not to mention that buying hinges to match the knobs would have really added to the cost. On a whim I picked up a can of oil-rubbed bronze spray paint:

It was less than $6 so I figured it was totally worth it to see if I could spray paint the old hardware before buying new. The picture makes it look black but the resulting color is very deep brown with just a hint of sheen.

I laid it all outside:

And sprayed a coat on each side (letting them dry in between) and then a third coat to touch it up a bit. There were a couple stray drips here and there but, on the whole, they look like brand new knobs.

I was stunned at the result. I got pretty much new hardware in the exact color I wanted for $6 and was able to reattach it all in the existing holes.

More pictures coming of the kitchen put back together.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

They liked the floors!

Our tenants arrived yesterday evening. They took a couple of days driving out from Milwaukee and called us at about 3:30 from the road to let us know they thought they'd be here at 5:30. At that point we were still operating power tools and walking around with paint cans in their apartment. Home improvement always takes longer than you think and I'm not sure if the hard deadline we had made it more or less stressful. I finished cleaning their kitchen at 5:29 and we left a few details unfinished.

Nothing we did to their apartment came out perfectly but we kept saying to ourselves, "We haven't made anything worse." The one thing I wasn't one hundred percent sure about was the wood floors. They looked so much better than they had before . . . but they were still old, beat up floors. Our plan had been to carpet both rooms and I worried that tenants would wish we'd done that. I had taken a couple of people upstairs to "show off" my work on the floors and they always entered the apartment in the front and first saw the brand new, perfectly installed flooring in those rooms. One friend even began to effusively compliment me before realizing we were in the wrong room. The reaction upon seeing the rooms I'd actually done myself was always polite, but definitely not gushing.

But the tenants genuinely like them! We took them up for their first viewing of the apartment in person (they took it sight unseen after viewing lots of pictures and detailed floor plans and write-ups from us). They examined the front two rooms and then we took them back and the first thing they said was, "Wow, these floors turned out great!" Music to my ears.

So, keeping in mind the horribly abused floors we began with, here is the previously carpeted bedroom:

This room was also repainted but more on that later.

And here is the room previously covered in very old vinyl tile:

The petrified glue on this floor did a number on my sanding pads and I ended up prying a lot of it up by hand with a paint scraper. And in this picture you can see a patch in the floor over on the left. When we pulled up the old floor that patch was three painted boards and we weren't sure they were going to be nice wood. One of the boards actually had some writing on it but the writing wasn't clear enough to read before the sander obliterated it. I was glad once we cleaned them up to see that the boards were oak just like the rest of the floor. Eric really wanted to pry up the boards and look for buried treasure (definitely wouldn't surprise me around here) but I was too creeped out by that idea and decided we had other priorities.

After my seven-hour day with the rented floor sander I used pretty much every minute of free time for the next three days using my random orbital hand sander to attack stubborn spots. The floor doesn't obviously slope or bow in any one direction as old houses often do, but it's definitely not level, either. I cleaned things up a lot but I also discovered all of my perfectionist tendencies coming to the fore. Every time I eliminated one nasty spot, the remaining ones looked that much worse. Eventually I decided that in order to finish our other projects and preserve my sanity I had to call it quits.

I did lots of research on finishing methods. I've refinished some of our furniture and some of the new pieces I've built but I figured floors would require a different approach. I quickly discovered that people have really strong opinions on this topic. After reading lots of opinions from professionals and other DIYers I opted to skip the stain and apply three coats of water-based finish with a 4" brush. I bought a 200 oz. jug of Zar Ultra-Max in semi-gloss. The front rooms are more of a high-gloss finish but I thought the older floors would do better in a more muted treatment and I'm really pleased with the result.

You can get lambswool applicator pads that attach to a long pole and apply finish that way but I'd read about some people having a lot of trouble with left-behind fibers. Since I knew I'd need a 4" brush for the edges anyway, and since the rooms were small and we were trying to stay under budget I opted to brush on the finish over the entire floor. I won't go so far as to say this was a mistake. I did it and the finish itself is awesome no matter what you think of the condition of the floors underneath. But if we ever do our own floors, I'm definitely going to give the pad-on-a-pole set up a try. My knees are never going to forgive me for crawling around on wood floors for days on end and I was totally wiped out after I was done. I also found that it was very tricky to pour out only as much poly as I needed for a particular spot and I repeatedly--through all three coats--would overestimate and accidentally splash some poly to a spot I'd just finished. I'd then need to do these crazy yoga-esque moves where I'd kind of brace myself with one finger against the baseboards trying to reach the drops and blend them into the floor. The upside to doing it all with a brush is that it was really easy to see those kinds of mistakes before they became harder to deal with.

So there's the floors. I have a few more posts on the counters, cabinets, and paint jobs, so those of you who eat this home renovation stuff for breakfast have a lot to look forward to!