Jan 6

Jen’s Richmond Reno: New (Old) Fireplace Mantels!

This house was built in 1908. Who knows how many people have lived here/died here/made breakfast here/celebrated Christmas here. This house will outlive me by decades…maybe even centuries. It’s a good thing I don’t really believe in ghosts, because if I did, I’d be surrounded by them.

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A few months ago I was demolishing my old dining room fireplace mantel, and I found this wedged in the baseboard  — a tintype that could date back as far as 1850. I would love to know more about who these people are — did they own the house? Did they build the house? Were they family? For now, I have named them Alfred and Gertrude. I plan on leaving them in the house forever because it seems like it would be bad luck to take them out of the home they’ve lived in for over 100 years.

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Aaaanyway, back to design. This is a pic of the living room. The old mantel doesn’t look that bad in this photo, but it was actually very poorly made and stylistically arbitrary. It was also slightly out of level, which drove me nuts. I wanted to find something more appropriate for the age of the house since this living room/sitting room is the first thing you see when you walk into the house. I was in California during most of the planning process for this house, so I started my search on Craigslist.

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Praise the internet, for within minutes I found this little guy. I can’t say that is was love at first sight, but I definitely noticed it was proportionately similar to my old mantle. I emailed the shop and asked the sales lady to send me some dimensions. I was looking for something that was 49 1/2″ or less. She came back to me with this photo.

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49 1/4?! Literally perfect. At that point I wasn’t even going to overthink it. Even though parts of this mantel looked like it had been chewed by a hungry squirrel, I called the lady and arranged to have it dropped off at the house.

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When I demolished the old mantel, I uncovered little bits of this vintage wallpaper from back-in-the day. I love uncovering little surprises like this. It makes the process of renovating feel more soulful.

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The mantel needed a ton of patching, priming and painting. I re-built all the damaged area with Ready Patch, my favorite patching compound in the world. When I’m patching raw wood, I use wood putty, when I’m patching painted wood, I use Ready Patch. At this point I’d estimate that half of my house is made out of putty and joint compound of some kind.

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Next, I needed to find a fireplace insert. I had the hardest time figuring out what these things are called. Fireplace surrounds? Firebacks? Even after extensive searches on Google, I’m still not sure what these things are called. Fortunately, local thrift store owners understood what I meant when I said I was looking for “iron things that go inside the mantle.” One store in the outskirts of town had a ton, and I found one that was a pretty close match size-wise, but it need a TON of clean-up work. pin it!

I  spent 4 hours brushing flakes of paint off with a wire brush, polishing with an attachment on my drill, and manually picking little bits out of the crevices with various sharp tools.  pin it!

I considered just waxing the iron fireplace surround so I could preserve the rich brown color, but the surface had a lot of scratches and splotchy color inconsistencies from me scraping the paint off. This was also toward the end of my renovation, and I was feeling rather impatient, so I ended up just spraying it gloss black. It doesn’t really really have as much WOW factor in the photos, but in person it was still pretty. Here’s a pic of the mantel all cleaned up!

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The living room shares a wall with the dining room which also has a mantel. The two mantels are back to back. This room had an even bigger, crappier mantel.

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I ripped the mantel off the wall, and that’s where I found that amazing tintype of Gertrude and Alfred. pin it!

There was really no limit to how big this mantel could be, so I considered really tall mantels and really ornate mantels, but eventually I settled on one that was classic and inexpensive. I think it was about $125. I opted against doing a metal fireplace surround for this room. Again, trying to keep the project as on-budget as possible. I saw a lot of pics of faux fireplace mantels online with nothing inside them, and I thought that would look fine.

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After I patched and painted the walls, I used plaster screws to secure this to the wall. The old mantel was attached to a crappy wood hearth that was covering some damage on the floor, so I built a new hearth and installed some quarter round edging that matched the floor perfectly.

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I found this simple mirror for $15 on Craigslist (thanks for lugging it for me, Christine!) I cleaned the floors and for the first time in weeks I was able to sit on the ground because it wasn’t covered in filth. Only a few more projects and I’ll be done with #jensrichmondreno! Eeeek!  Up next…upstairs bathroom.

Posted by Jen at 6:45 am — 3 comments
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Nov 4

Jen’s Richmond Reno: The Downstairs Bathroom

Sometimes it’s hard to fully appreciate a dramatic before-and-after transformation without seeing the “before” in person.  Photographs can be very forgiving and I often tell people that a “before” picture of a room might look decent, but TRUST ME, in real life it was looked way worse.

This is not one of those situations because for once, even in these small photos the room’s grossness really translates. Hooray! Behold, my downstairs full bathroom:

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Can we just note how ridiculously off-center this cabinet and sconce are? I’m sure this was because the medicine cabinet was mounted between studs, but I’m still surprised that whoever installed this felt that this was the best possible option.

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I have no idea what this wall-mounted box is. I ripped so many mystery cords and wires off the house. And let’s not forget the saddest little corner of the house — this janky divider wall and adjacent cubby made entirely of scrap wood.

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The walls in this room were so spongey and soft from moisture that we had to rip all the drywall out. My first instinct was to lose that divider wall completely. When I knocked it down, it did make the room feel a lot bigger. There was more natural light without the big wall in the way. Unfortunately, losing the wall would have meant having to get a 90 degree shower curtain rod that would wrap around 2 sides of the tub and I would have sacrificed all the storage in the room.

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In the end I decided to re-build the wall with way more support, then install a 12″ wide kitchen cabinet from Lowes and build custom shelving above it to fully utilize the small space.

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My lower cabinet wouldn’t fit in the nook because there was this annoying pipe coming up from the ground. My plumber said it was a gas pipe and suggested that we just cut it shorter and cap it off under the house. pin it!

And that’s how I wound up with a huge hole in the floor. We had to make the hole big enough for my plumber to fit his hands in there so he could cut and cap the pipe. Fortunately we didn’t have to make the floor patch pretty. We just secured some plywood over it and covered it up. pin it!

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It’s safe to say that this turned into a complete bathroom overhaul, but because it’s a rental, I still wanted to keep my budget within reason. I chose to use simple white subway tile and I had my awesome art assistant Jef install them with me.

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When the project was nearing completion, I was finally able to lay the new floor. I chose this amazing hexagon vinyl flooring. I saw this floor for the first time on one of the shows I art directed and I was impressed by how realistic and durable it was. It also has a subtle texture that’s so realistic that 3 of the vendors who came to my house thought it was natural stone at first. The old bathroom floor was 70s gray linoleum tiles, but they were in perfect condition, so I just laid the new hexagon flooring over it. I made a giant stencil out of paper to make sure that all the cuts would be perfect, then just plopped it down. This vinyl doesn’t even require any kind of adhesive! I did caulk the seam between the tub and the floor just in case.

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I quite liked the rounded edge of the tub, but it created an awkward little corner that was super difficult to tile. I also learned that edge tiles are incrementally smaller than regular subway tiles. WHY would you do that to us, Dal Tile?! pin it!

It’s not a very big room, so I really just have this one photo that gives you the best idea of what it looks like to date — super simple, bright, and clean. Up next: the upstairs bathroom renovation!

Posted by Jen at 11:58 am — comment
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Jul 26

Jen’s Richmond Reno: The Kitchen

I’ve always said that kitchens are my favorite room to design. I love sourcing cabinets, tiles, and appliances. I love to space plan for hours on end. I love the permanence of them — you have to make decisions really carefully because for the most part, once a design choice has been implemented, there’s no turning back! It just so happens that I also spend 75% of the year art directing Food Network shows and designing kitchen sets. Funny…I basically never cook.

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I bought this house without seeing in in person first, so I didn’t have a great idea of exactly how much work needed to be done. Fortunately, my amazing friend Christine went to check it out for me. I trust her judgement 100% and she gave the house her seal of approval. The price was right and the bones were good.

This kitchen had a few things going for it. It’s a generous size, it has big windows that let in a ton of natural light, and the cabinets are old but solid.

There were a few things I was definitely not a fan of. That column in the middle of the room was a bummer. At some point this space was actually 2 smaller rooms, and someone knocked down the wall and added the column for support. If I were doing a full overhaul on this space ($25-$30k) I would have considered hiring an engineer to help me figure out how to make the column go away, but honestly, when you’re in the space, the column is not terribly offensive. I knew that something like a column wouldn’t be a deal breaker for a renter considering how great the rest of the house was, so I decided that the column was going to stay. The linoleum flooring was not particularly attractive, but it was brand new and in perfect condition so I decided going to keep it.

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The stove was in fine working condition (I actually have this exact stove in my apartment in NYC and I love it even though it’s very basic.) The cabinets on either side were made out of metal that had been dented over the years. Wood cabinets are more appropriate for the age of the house, so I got rid of the metal cabinets. And that range hood. SIGH. What a sad, sad little guy…all alone on that big wall.

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The other side of the kitchen was a mess. There was a closet that housed the HVAC system and a big black fridge that was weirdly disconnected from the rest of the space. I spent hours thinking of ways to make the fridge seem less awkward. Do I move it forward? Do I turn it 90 degrees? Do I buy a sexier fridge and just leave it where it is? More on that later…

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I whipped up this moodboard in LA while anxiously waiting  for the house to close — fantasizing about how this simple kitchen renovation could be done in a week or so. In theory, my plan was simple:

-Install new (faux) beadboard and bring it up higher so it reached the bottom of the cabinets

-Replace the metal cabinets, clean up the existing wood cabinets, and repaint everything to match

-Install a new dark laminate countertop

-Build a big range hood for drama

-Switch out all hardware and add bronze accents throughout

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Oh, but it’s NEVER that simple, is it?! I was surprised to discover that the most time consuming project in the entire house turned out to be the beadboard in the kitchen. The story is so boring I almost don’t want to talk about it…but I’m going to talk about it anyway.

When I bought the house, there was some poorly installed trim and cheap, crappy panels on the wall. Once I ripped those off, I discovered that there was already original, authentic 3/4″ thick beadboard on the original walls of the house, but not on the walls that were added later.  My initial plan was to take all the beadboard off and just start over so it would all match. I started yanking all of it off until I realized half way through that some of the beadboard was actually insulating the exterior walls of the house. I had a bit of a freakout, put all the beadboard back and went with plan B.

Plan B was to add some furring strips across the entire room so I could run the beadboard higher, then go over what was already there. Let me tell ya – it’s not an easy task to install beadboard in an old wonky house with plaster walls. Beadboard basically adds a subtle vertical striping to a room, and it has to be installed SUPER level in order to look right. If it’s even the tiniest bit off, you can really tell.

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This was definitely one of those situations where it got a lot worse before it got better. Apparently the awkwardly placed refrigerator was hiding  the plumbing to my downstairs bathtub. When I rolled it to the side and ripped off the flimsy paneling, I found this mess behind it.  Some of the old drywall cladding the HVAC room was dried out/water-damaged/crumbling and needed to be replaced. Every time I removed a big nail from the original plaster, a huge chunk of wall came out with it. And can I just point out that hideous vent on the little door to the furnace room?

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A bit of hilarity — I removed the upper cabinets in order to sand/prime/paint, and I found all kinds of weird stuff smashed into the wall, stuck on by 70-year-old kitchen grease.

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Remember that dumb little door with the vent leading to the HVAC room? I kept the door, but decided to give it makeover. I cut out all 6 of the recessed panels and added metal radiator grates so it would allow for plenty of ventilation.

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Even though this little door was leading to basically a closet, it was located right next to the doorway  to the dining room which had pretty original trim on it. I decided to build out the trim around the HVAC room doorway to match. Original trim on the right, new trim on the left. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s pretty darn close. I’m obsessed with moulding. I spent 10x what I had initially planned on moulding because I kept finding different places that I wanted to add it.

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White caulk is my best friend! I’m seriously considering doing an entire post on caulk because I am so passionate about it.

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I’m sure you are all shocked that I chose gray for the cabinets! This color is Valspar Montpelier Ashlar Gray (6004-1C) It has a lot of warm undertones and I liked it so much in the kitchen that I ended up painting every single interior door in the house this color.

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A closeup of my little furnace room door. New bronze hinges and knobs for the whole house, y’all!

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Remember the cheap white range hood over the stove? I built a big dramatic wood hood to go over it! The design was relatively simple, but it had some crazy angles, and I didn’t have a table saw at the time, so it definitely took some ingenuity to engineer.

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I built the frame out of light-weight pine and wrapped it in 1/4″ plywood. It’s been a while since I had to build something with weird angles. It was nice to use my brain in that way again.

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A little crown moulding, and BAM. Instant impact and drama! Only cost me about $100 for materials.

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I built the bottom part of the hood first, then I mounted that to the wall and added the vertical shaft separately so all the side panels would be super flush with the wavy plaster wall.

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Because I am a perfectionist, rather than paint the cabinets while they were in place, I took all the cabinets off the walls, lugged them to the garage, removed all the doors and hardware, cleaned them with degreaser, sanded, puttied, sanded again, primed, and painted. Then I hung them back on the wall and added the same crown moulding that I used on the hood to give them a more high-end look.

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Earlier in the post I mentioned that I had the hardest time figuring out what to do which the fridge which was positioned awkwardly in the corner of the room.

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After considering about 5 different solutions, I finally landed on this sketch. I created a shelving unit that faced the kitchen, then turned the fridge 90 degrees so you access it from the side. You basically don’t even really realize the fridge is there, which is great because the fridge is in good condition but kind of dated.

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After working on my house alone for 6 weeks, I was pretty exhausted so I flew my amazing art assistant, Jef out to Virginia to help with the last leg of my project. I couldn’t have wished for a better apprentice to help me get everything done! YOU ARE MY HERO, JEF! I owe you a thousand steaks and bowls of macaroni and cheese.

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In the end, the kitchen alone took me 2.5 weeks, working 16 hours/day. It was definitely a very time consuming project and I spent about 35% more than I had budgeted. Once I started, I was 100% committed and couldn’t stop until everything was pretty much perfect. It was totally worth it though. I didn’t want to show the house to potential tenants and feel embarrassed by the kitchen. Since the kitchen was the first room that was (mostly) finished, I spent the most time in there of any room in the house and became really attached to it. Here are some “after” pics!

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Posted by Jen at 3:52 pm — 1 comment
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Jul 23

Jen’s Richmond Reno: How Many Different Ugly Ceilings Can One House Have?

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I mentioned in my last post that the ceilings in my Richmond house had issues. Seventy five percent of the ceilings had cracks that were covered with terrible swirly plaster designs or “popcorn” texture. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing in the design/build realm that i HATE doing, it’s anything that requires holding my arms over my head for extended periods of time. That includes installing crown moulding, replacing heavy/awkward light fixtures, and most of all—patching/sanding ceilings. Right off the bat I budgeted $5k to have someone else come in an fix them for me.

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The selling agent didn’t include this picture in the listing…wonder why!? When I first saw this photo I was concerned that this damage was caused by a leaking roof which would have meant $10k+ out the window. My inspector figured out that it was actually caused by an improperly insulated vent that was causing condensation/dripping. My agent asked the seller to fix the hole before I bought the house, which was good but still not great. They just cut a patch piece and put a bunch of texture on it. The rest of the house was a mish-mosh of ugly ceilings of all types. I’m certain that all of these were just a band-aid to cover up cracked plaster.

I’ve met a good number of contractors over the years, and I find that many of them are reluctant to do drywall. It’s a skill that sounds easy on paper, but when someone doesn’t have passion or finesse for it, it takes forever and it winds up being a huge mess. Fortunately, there is a small percentage of dudes just LOVE doing drywall, and that’s the kind of guy you want doing your ceilings.  If this is something you ever plan on having done in your house, don’t hire a random person who says they “can” do drywall. Hire someone who ONLY does drywall.

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I hired a guy, Oscar to hang drywall over the existing ceilings. I figured with 10′ ceilings I wouldn’t miss the 3/8″ that I was losing. Oscar ordered 12′ boards for the new ceilings. We brought the ones for the ground level through the front door, and the guys used a giant crane to get the rest of the boards onto the 2nd story.

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Man… I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. I REALLY dislike doing any kind of work that requires my arms over my head for hours. I don’t know how these guys do it. I’m pretty tough, but patching ceilings is not for me. I love watching people apply joint compound, though. Its like watching someone ice a cake — so soothing!

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In addition to patching the ceilings, we also patched the walls. The old plaster had cracked in tons of places, which is normal, but kind of ugly. This wall in the dining room was the worst. It was so bad that we skim coated the entire wall. That soft gray color is NOT paint. It’s wall-to-wall joint compound. Oscar said that we used more drywall mud in this house than he usually uses in 10 new homes. Whoops!

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I talk a lot about the “invisible work” that goes into renovating an old space. It’s all the time that you spend repairing cracked/chipped/lumpy walls and trim. It’s kind of like plastic surgery for a house because it can literally make the house look decades younger if you do it right.  I admit I have a bit of OCD when it comes to this kind of work and it’s not unusual for me to do one round of patching/sanding/painting, then go over it all over again with a 2nd, 3rd or 4th round. It’s super time consuming, but it just feels so great when it’s done. In this house, I spent a good 2 weeks straight on patching and sanding alone.

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But in the end, I was thrilled with the new ceilings. Oscar did an awesome job, and they make the house look about 1000x more polished and welcoming. This is the dining room.

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Kitchen ceiling before

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Kitchen ceiling after with a little sneak peak of the range hood I built. I’m putting together a big blog post about kitchen for next week. In case you forgot what it looked like before, here’s a pic to refresh your memory:

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More on that later. Have a great weekend everyone!


Posted by Jen at 1:08 pm — 1 comment
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