World-Herald reporter Roger Buddenberg and his wife are embarking on a major home remodeling project. He'll blog about the ups and downs, delays and accomplishments at omaha.com/living
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After you swab a paintbrush back and forth for a few hours, it's hard not to ponder how DIY got into your DNA. And why it's still there after all these years, an impulse that ignores the body parts moaning “oilcan! oiiiilcaaan!” like the Tin Woodsman. Why do you still do this? you mumble to yourself.
It was a question from the start of our kitchen remodel. We chose a contractor partly because he was willing to let us do some of the project ourselves, working around him — not an easy decision for contractors to make. No doubt they all can tell horror stories about homeowners who thought they could tackle the world because they watched “This Old House” once.
So he was probably relieved — relatively — when we said we wanted to do only the painting and the tile backsplash. I think he got nervous again when we said we envisioned part of the backsplash as a hand-made mosaic, an artsy affair to highlight the spot behind the cooktop, the sort of thing that could take years and cost thousands of lives.
It didn't. In fact everything worked out OK. And the DIY addiction has moved on to other targets, like growing tomatoes. Rest easy, contractor, rest easy. But the original question remains: Where does the do-it-yourself jones come from?
I think from cavemen and parents. (My kids think those are the same thing, but that's a whole 'nother blog.) Cavemen were the original DIYers, hacking their homes out of a hillside or evicting a bear, then decorating the new place with those nice paintings of their friends slaying a bison. So the impulse was set in our genes. We still want to work on our own caves.
And parents? Well, we of a certain age are sons of sons of the Depression. Thrift got in our bones. We grew up absorbing the idea that it's right to do it yourself or do without. Or at least fool yourself into believing that's what you do. My dad is a farmer and a WWII vet as well, which with his Depression childhood makes him a triple-credentialed DIYer, a charter member of the suck-it-up-and-get-it-done generation.
P.S. — Here's one way to put a mosaic on a wall while the contractor is still working on the kitchen: Find a spot on the basement floor where you can work undisturbed. Draw your design on something flat that's the size of the target area, say, a hunk of drywall. Smash a lot of tile. Use a hammer (very therapeutic, but wear gloves and eye protection). Fill in your design with the shards, like a jigsaw puzzle. Use tile nippers when necessary to adjust the shape of shards. Let the whole thing accumulate day by day while the contractor is banging away in the kitchen. Beverages may help. Now the tricky part: You know how to tile, but how do you get a kajillion carefully arranged pieces lying loose on the floor up on the wall? Contact paper. Cover the face of the tiles with it, so they're all taped together. Then you can cut loose one manageable section at a time, lift it up and stick it to the kitchen wall. When the tile adhesive has set, peel off the contact paper and you're ready to grout.
The Home Stretch
The project is near enough done that She Who Must Be Obeyed has stopped calling it the kitchen of the future. Now SWMBO calls it "the KOT."
The kitchen of today.
After all, we're cooking food in it again, instead of huddling around a microwave in the corner like cavemen. (I know, I know. Cavemen preferred natural gas or magnetic induction. But you know what I mean.)
Although we are cooking in the KOT, and have even entertained friends who don't mind sitting on boxes, it's not quite done. The last mile can seem the hardest.
The contractor is working down his punch list, the final to-dos before he packs up his tools and shakes our sawdust from his feet. There are still odd bits of painting to finish — we're doing that ourselves. And curtains to choose. Pictures to hang. A garage to clean. Doorstops. Light shades. Details. Then we'll shoot some "after" photos.
It'll get done, dear, really. But it can't be rushed. You have to let the game come to you.
We aren't actually remodeling the dogs, of course. Although if that were possible ...
I bring them up because at first they were an obstacle to the project. (Note to self: "Obstacle" would be a good dog name.) Boarding two Lab-sized mutts for weeks and weeks would have been prohibitively costly. Instead, family friends (who have a dog of their own) came to the rescue. They have dog-sat.
The mutts return to our house for weekend furloughs, during which the poor creatures wonder, "What has happened to the place?" and, more important, "Where has the best dog-nap couch gone?" and "What time is supper?"
Soon they'll be home for good. The project is in the home stretch — painting, the last bits of trim, a few last appliance hookups, a final floor finishing and the like.
Dogs make poor remodelers, as a rule. Both of ours shed a lot of hair — a problem when painting. One is always happy, always interrupting, often mischievous. The other is crabby and naps a lot. (I'm told I resemble one of them.) In short, inviting them to a home improvement project would be like inviting the Bumpus hounds to Christmas dinner.
Bottom line: If you're going to fix up your kitchen, have good friends. And make sure to remove the obstacles.
That smudge on my thumb? That's the trim color. And on the side of my hand is a little of the chocolate color that's going on the walls. I love the smell of latex in the morning. Smells like ... victory.
Painting is the main thing we're doing ourselves. It's not a huge part of the project, but it soothes my DIY jones and my skinflintiness. And it gives our friends, at least those who weren't quick enough to invent excuses, yet another reason to wish they'd never met us.
You really don't want to take on a project like this without indulgent friends, someone to babysit your dogs or feed you a sandwich when your house is all sawdusty or listen while you obsess about granite and self-closing drawers.
We are painting — and tiling the backsplash too — while the contractor's crew is doing the final trim work, appliance hookups and other odds and ends. It's a bit of a juggling act — a lot of cooks in the kitchen, you might say. So far no one's been hurt.
A couple weeks more and there should be an "after" photo to go with the "before." And a chance to scrub the last bits of paint out of my fingernails.
The Stuff You Walk On
The floor was an issue from the start. What should one walk on in the kitchen of the future?
The existing floor was a wood-look laminate that we laid down 14 years ago after we moved in. It replaced some wholly inappropriate carpet — not naked-lady-pattern inappropriate, but worn and, let's face it, who can live in a carpeted kitchen? Spills happen.
The laminate endured a decade's worth of kids and dogs but was showing wear at the seams. Moreover, the KOF was going to grow into additional floor space that had a mixture of floorings. Some new surface would have to be chosen for the whole area.
Tile and hardwood were the finalists — suitably durable without being exotically priced. We were pleasantly surprised to hear the contractor say he could install hardwood — provided we stuck with something simple like oak — for less than tile. Wood is warmer, is easier to stand on and has no grout to clean. Wood it is.
Things are moving fast now. Some trim, some tile, some paint, some appliances and we're done. Light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps? Maybe we can start thinking about cooking again.
We must have been hungry the day we picked out cupboards. Cherry wood. Truffle stain. Walnut glaze. That's what we chose. It's enough to send me out for a Blizzard right now except DQ is probably mobbed with Buffett fans this week.
Cupboards were the single priciest item of the kitchen, about a third of the total. We'd braced ourselves for that. The old ones (site-built of painted plywood, circa 1964) were not reusable, even if we'd wanted to keep them where they were.
So we stared at the cabinetry brochures the contractor showed us and the thousands of options. Wood species. Color. Style. Sizes. Trim options. Hardware. It went on and on, for most of a morning until we were a little numb. Fortunately our tastes are fairly similar, because this is often the point at which the contractor has to subcontract with a marriage counselor.
Cupboards come in three basic types: stock (the cheapest), semi-custom and custom. Custom was clearly out of our price range. But we were impressed with the big jump in quality between stock and semi-custom. So once again we found ourselves drawn to the middle option.
The contractor insisted all these choices be made weeks ago, before he swung the first hammer. If the project is to finish on time, he said, he can't be waiting while we dither over the Santa Fe doors vs. the Pendleton.
Now they're being installed. And we love them more than when we picked them out. The Mrs. is playing with the pullouts and the other features and raving over the amount of storage. I just want to pour chocolate on them and eat.
Like millions before us, we have succumbed to the call of the rock.
Granite, that is. Or what Washington Post writer Monica Hesse calls “a big, weighty slab of the American dream,” so alluring that an otherwise perfect house — gleaming bathrooms, fenced yard, new furnace, a magic capacity to reduce thighs — would repel buyers unless it had the countertops of stone.
The ancient Egyptians used granite in pyramids. The Romans used it in everything from the Pantheon to public baths. How can you argue with timeless romance like that? More important, how can you argue with my spouse when she gets that look in her eye? She and the granite bonded.
True, it's not the cheapest thing you can slice your bread on. Laminate or ceramic tile can be had for $10 to $50 a square foot, or less if you DIY, says CountertopsKey.com, an online price quoter. At the other end of the scale, stainless steel can run $200 a square foot. Granite is in between — and cheaper than it used to be, thanks to supplies that outran the recession. It ranges from $50 to $100, or more for the really exotic slabs.
Ours is not exotic. Just sleek, dark and really hard. It'll go on top of the island and three smaller counters. It's called India Copper Brown.
Eons ago, it was a blob of magma deep in the earth, cooling slowly. Now it sits in an Omaha shop, being cut to shape and polished. The contractor even gave us a little piece to drool over while we await installation.
He probably saw that look in my wife's eye.
Drywall dust is on my mind. And my shoes, the seat of my pants, my morning oatmeal, pretty much everywhere.
It's classic good news, bad news. Good news because it means walls are going up, which is a cheering sight after weeks of staring at naked wires and pipes. Those planes of white make you feel like you're stepping back toward civilization. It's like passing a milestone: The fun stuff — cabinets and countertops and other things you see on the cover of kitchen magazines — are not far off.
On the other hand ... the dust. It gets everywhere. The installers have tried to keep it at bay — have walled off the rest of the house with plastic, cleared away the scraps and so forth. But the dust — very fine, very abrasive — still sifts its way around the house, hitchhikes on our shoes, sneaks through the ducts. When this phase is over, there'll be a housecleaning.
Drywall — not exciting but necessary. Also on that note:
Windows: One has been boarded up, creating wall space for cabinets. Two others have been replaced, trading older single-pane types for higher-efficiency models. As a bonus, they are clean.
Fireplace: It used to be about 12 feet long, a brick bench that bespoke the 1960s, the kind of spot where Mad Men executives sat to loosen their skinny ties and drink highballs and ogle each others' ornamental wives. My wife, who is ornamental but not purely so, and our design adviser decided it had to go. It's been jack-hammered down to about 4 feet long, a fireplace for the 21st century.
Some highball drinkers must stand now.
They say every remodel has its surprises. Some of them come with feet or wings.
I wasn't going to mention this part of the project yet. I hoped delaying might minimize the "eeewww" factor for my wife, who's the main cheerleader for the kitchen of the future. Talk of critters might be less upsetting, I figured, if she were first eyeing her new cabinets with the self-closing drawers and pullout shelves.
But the bat is out of the bag.
Yes, bat. Bruce the bat, let's call him.
Bruce showed up suddenly a few days ago, swooping around inside the new kitchen space as the head carpenter and I bravely ran away, away (like Sir Robin in Monty Python's "Holy Grail"). We opened the doors and made bat-shooing sounds, hoping Bruce would find his way out. He did eventually, but not before the wife arrived on the scene. Let's just say she and Bruce did not part friends.
Now we are telling ourselves, very earnestly, that Bruce was merely a stray who slipped in through an open window looking for the bat cave. Not one in a coven of bats that have parked themselves in our attic. Not a vampire scouting new targets. But to tell the truth, Bruce's origins are a mystery.
Another mystery: The electrician drew me aside a few days ago after the old kitchen had been stripped to the bare studs. "Wanna know something weird we found?" he said.
How could I not?
He pointed to a spot inside the wall, behind where the oven used to be. "We found something dead there."
"Something?" I asked.
Probably a squirrel, he said, adding that the body didn't really bear close inspection, just a quick trip into the trash. It was long dead. Not easily identified. Mummified. An ex-squirrel, as the Monty Python boys would say.
The mystery is how he got there. Sal, as I think of him now, must have scampered in between the second-floor joists when the house was being built, then tumbled into the stud bay where he expired. It'd be easy to mock the intelligence of such a creature, but I don't want to offend his spirit.
We don't need a squirrel ghost around the place. We already have a bat.
The Big Beam
One day last week, a beam appeared in our yard. It lay on the grass, 18 feet of hard black steel. From the end, it looked like a foot-tall letter “I.”
Now it's holding up our house.
Eight guys (thankfully, none of them was me) carried it in through the front door, working like ants. All weekend the hulking thing sat on the floor of our demolished kitchen/hall/family room, daring us to trip over it. Then our head carpenter, an unusually patient man we'll call Tony, whom we've carefully plied with hot coffee every morning, jacked it into place in the kitchen ceiling using a pair of mini-forklifts.
The reason for this beefy girder — if this sort of stuff bores you, be patient till we get to the cherry cabinets with truffle stain and walnut glaze — is that a supporting wall had to be removed to create open space for the new kitchen. Now the beam spans that space. Without it, the second story and roof would come crashing down into the main floor, which would be a bad thing, Tony tells us.
This heavy-structural phase of the project is exciting — something changes dramatically almost every day — but it's wearing, too. Mess is unavoidably everywhere. Drywall dust has become a condiment. The Spousal Unit is impatiently rapturous about the kitchen of the future, which is still a long ways in the future. “The Kay-Oh-Eff needs new dishes,” she says. “The Kay-Oh-Eff must have new window treatments.”
Go, Tony, go. Better have a second cup.
The thing about demolition is, even when you know it's coming, it still knocks you on your heels a bit.
The place where we've eaten with the kids, played cards with friends, watched TV, read the paper — basically lived our life — for 14 years is gone. It's now studs and subfloor, wires and ducts.
We've crammed ourselves into the rest of the house, which wouldn't be so bad except for lacking a kitchen. We've still got a working microwave and fridge, though, so we'll manage.
The dust — ripping out drywall makes a lot of it — is an issue but not as bad as I feared. So far. We chose our contractor partly on his record of cleaning up after himself each day, and he's done about as well as we could expect. Plastic walls, complete with zippers so you can step through, separate the dirty parts of the house from the "clean."
We've had to make a lot of materials choices in a short time. It's still kind of a blur. Some little things are sure to change as we go along, but the contractor was insistent about having most choices made before demolition began. Otherwise he couldn't promise to stay on schedule.
The biggies: cabinets, flooring, countertops and appliances. More about them later.
Lately I've been remembering an old comedy, "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House." Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.
It's funnier when it's happening to someone else.
What the kitchen looked like before.
A lot has happened fast. At least it seems like a lot, and yet not a hammer has swung.
We started out thinking we might keep this simple — OK, I started out thinking that.
Our kitchen and family room form an "L," each room taking up one leg. Between them is a wall. It's very 1960s: Mom is supposed to cook by herself in the kitchen, unseen, while hubby and kids sit in the family room.
I thought: Just remove that 8 feet of wall and the job could be mostly done. Or maybe cut the wall down to form a peninsula. Keep all the plumbing where it is, replace the cabinets and presto. An "open" kitchen.
What a fool.
"Couldn't we get an island in here?" asked Wife.
After a flurry of measuring the contractor said yes. But it will mean a lot of moving things around. Sink, dishwasher, fridge, cooktop — nearly everything would get a new home, with new wiring and plumbing. Cha-ching.
But we like the plan. In fact, Wife loves it and keeps rhapsodizing about the kitchen of the future.
Then we spent a long morning with the contractor's designer, choosing materials. If the job is to go swiftly and smoothly, she said, all these things must be picked now. There are a lot, everything from floor to lights, cabinets to drawer pulls, appliances to the little button that turns on the disposal. It made me a little dizzy.
Luckily Wife and I have similar tastes, which is to say that when she really likes something, I know to shut up.
I now will shut up. And will start boxing up dishes. It looks like we'll be microwaving dinner in the basement for a while. The hammers swing in a few days.
P.S. — Family friends have agreed to take the dogs when necessary. Problem solved. New problem: Finding replacement friends.
Contractor is hired. We have crossed the Rubicon.
It was a hard decision and an easy decision, I think. Hard because it's a lot of money. When we moved in 14 years ago, we spent maybe $2,000 on the kitchen, mainly for a laminate floor (to replace carpet — who carpets a kitchen?) and to put fresh Formica on the worn countertops. Peanuts compared to a remodel.
Contractors hesitate to say what "a kitchen remodel" will cost because it varies so widely depending on what you're doing. Just a quick makeover? Replacing cabinets? Appliances? Floors? Replacing with what, exactly? Knocking down walls? What's in those walls? Adding on?
Some told us their kitchen jobs averaged $30,000 to $40,000 but could easily be half that — or twice that — depending on the extent of the project and choice of materials.
Our contractor was an easy decision because he's in the middle. I'm a centrist. I like the middle.
On one hand, we could hire Some Guy With a Hammer. That might save us money, especially if he's hungry. But he'd be unpredictable. Maybe he'd be a handyman prodigy who would build us a great kitchen for a song, or maybe he'd be a serial killer who'd put his hammer through our skulls. Or just not show up.
On the other hand, we could hire An Artiste. We'd get a masterpiece kitchen, worthy of a magazine cover. The bill would be a masterpiece too. (You pay a lot for that beret.) We talked to one of these guys before realizing he was a contractor to the stars. He suggested we spend roughly $150,000 — about what we paid for the whole house. I avoided laughing out loud.
In the middle is our guy. He's a local who's been in business many years and says he can do the job in about 10 weeks. He's willing to flex his bid depending on the materials we choose and whether we take on some of the work. And we like him.
He seems OK with dogs.
We've abandoned the Band-Aid approach — you know, covering up the worst parts of the kitchen and ignoring the rest while turning up the TV — in favor of a remodel. But we need to decide how to tackle that.
Do it yourself?
Out of the question. Even if we hired out the scariest bits, like plumbing and electrical, the DIY route would still take forever. There are only so many takeout pizzas you can eat before you want your kitchen back. And based on our experience with bathroom projects, I don't think our marriage would survive.
How about acting as general contractor, hiring out most of the work but orchestrating it ourselves?
Tempting. It could save a bunch of money. The big box stores and cabinetry places offer free design help (in the hope you'll buy their materials and hire their installers).
But even so, the scale of a full-blown remodel — eliminating walls, moving plumbing, coordinating subcontractors — makes this option too daunting. It'd still take a lot of our time, and we've got day jobs. And the marriage would still give way like drywall under a sledgehammer.
No, we've got to hire someone to do the whole thing. Someone my wife can look in the eye like Capt. Jean-Luc Picard and say, "Make it so."
Because I don't want that to be me.
We need someone we can trust to get the job done pronto. And who maybe will save us a few dollars and my handyman ego by letting me do a few tasks around the edges.
Oh, must love dogs too. Or at least tolerate them. Big dogs, two of them. Good grief, what ARE we going to do with the dogs while this is going on? This is going to get tricky.
Gulp. We knew this day would come.
When my wife and I bought our Omaha home 14 years ago, a friend dubbed it "the Cleaver house." White two-story. Paned windows. Shady yard. The only thing missing, she said, is a white picket fence and a kid named Beaver.
More was missing, in fact. And what wasn't missing was wearing out. In short, it was a fixer-upper. We knew that. That's how we could afford it. We went in with eyes open.
The kitchen has always loomed like a wall cloud over the other fix-up projects. Painting rooms we could do, no problem. Ripping the mint-green disco shag off the wood floors — that we could do. We built shelves, updated lighting, even overhauled a couple of bathrooms, stretching my DIY skills to the limit.
Still the kitchen loomed. If we're going to stay in the house, we said — heck, even if we're going to ever sell the house — then something has to be done with the kitchen. Something big. A makeover, not a comb-over.
Nibbling at its edges — new Formica on the countertops, new light fixtures, a lick here, a promise there — held us for a while. But nothing could disguise the cabinets, site-built in the 1960s and now falling apart in places. Nor the closed-off, galley-style layout, which might have suited June Dear when the Cleavers lived here but did not suit my Current Wife.
"In the kitchen of the future," she has been saying for roughly 14 years, "we will have double ovens. The kitchen of the future will have an island. And a gas cooktop. The kitchen of the future will have a wine rack." And so on.
The husband of the future mostly muttered to himself and tried not to think about it. But because I desperately love her, and because a gas cooktop does sound pretty cool, the day has come. The future is now. The kitchen commences. Both daughters have now made it through college — even snagged juicy scholarships along the way, which makes it easier for Mr. and Mrs. Empty Nest to contemplate the remodel.
This will be an account of our contemplations. Let it begin. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of home improvement.