Friday, January 28, 2011

The tyranny of choice (or why I can't choose my marble edge profile)

the built-up ogee step edge in honed statuario on the bathroom vanity
With only a few weeks to go before the cabinets get installed, the remaining kitchen decisions are looming large and we have lost all perspective.  This kitchen renovation has taken years to come to fruition, and during that time, while we attended to the behind-the-scenes infrastructure, we dreamed.  Our dreams were big, the possibilities endless.  And we took advantage of the freedom dreaming offers: changing our minds about some appliance or finish every couple of weeks.  But now, most of our decisions have been made.  The flooring is in place, new windows installed, appliances purchased, backsplash tile stockpiled, cabinets being built, sinks and faucets ordered, perimeter counters selected, trim refinished, light fixtures mostly in, and suddenly the option of changing our minds is gone...well, almost.

noisette grigio, white medusa, calacatta cielo
We have yet to choose the marble for our kitchen island.  And here's where we find ourselves confronted once again by almost infinite choice.  This time, though, the choice doesn't feel liberating, but stifling.  We have three weeks to decide.  After that, the cabinets will be in place and, unless we want to camp out in a makeshift kitchen in my studio forever, the counters will have to go in, and life go on.

our currently tagged slab--calacatta carrara extra (calacatta and carrara in one slab!)
So, really, what's our problem?  We are in the midst of a luxurious kitchen renovation.  How can we complain?  Are we dragging our feet because it will really make a world of difference whether we choose the calacatta carrara, the arabescato extra, the calacatta ondulato, or the white medusa?  Will we be forever dissatisfied if we get a mitred square edge instead of a built-up ogee?  We've invested this decision with so much importance that I'm beginning to think it's symbolic of something else entirely--as though the island countertop decision is a metaphorical door closing on possible worlds.  Once this final choice is made, the once in a lifetime dream kitchen is no longer a dream, but a reality. 


The first slab I tagged--an arabescato--vetoed by N as too purple  
So I guess choice is not the real tyrant at all.  Choice allows the dream to take place.  It's coming to a decision that turns on all the lights and wakes us up from the dream of possibility.  No wonder we're so indecisive. 

another option--calacatta cremo dorato extra (extra for extra $? calacatta as a prefix is always dangerous)
 No wonder houses, especially as they are being built or renovated, are so often used as metaphors for life, and these light decisions that we have the luxury of making feel so heavy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Half Bath Tour

Doorknob salvaged from former main floor bathroom
Just down the stairs and around the corner from that orderly tool wall we wrote about here, is our new two-piece half bath. Shall we go in?

Here we are on the outside.  The tongue and groove boards and exterior marine lights make it look a little cottagey out here, so we sometimes refer to this half-bath as the indoor-inside-out-house. Much remains unfinished out here: ceiling, trim, cabinets above the washer and dryer, stairs, etc, but for now, I will try to focus on our (very nearly) completed project.

First glimpse...

Further in...
Shut the door
This doorknob and lock set is also from the former main floor bathroom.  It is not original to the house, but probably predates the conversion to a duplex in the 1940s.  This one still has some of its original nickel or silver plating.  At first we thought we required a rim lock because our door wasn't thick enough to house the old lock mechanism, but N ingeniously encased the lock in a box, carved out a niche for the strike plate, and constructed his own rim lock. It works beautifully.

Through the looking glass, right and left
It's difficult to photograph a small space. The mirror reflects the nautical chart of our beloved St. Margaret's Bay in Nova Scotia, and the rustic "Z" pattern door constructed by N and my dad out of tongue and groove boards.

the faceframe cabinet with inset door reclaimed from our original pantry
original Eastlake latch hardware from our old pantry cupboard
We were fortunate to be able to reuse the door and latch hardware from an original pantry cupboard to construct this little cabinet over the toilet.  I gasped when I first saw it installed--it looked so perfect in its space.  Honestly, when I saw how quickly N and my dad built and installed this little faceframe cabinet with its inset door and exposed hinges, I wondered why we needed to hire a cabinetmaker for the kitchen at all.

To give you an idea, here are some before and after shots:

during, and after--stairs and plumbing now neatly hidden away
the original cupboard door already hung in its new frame

chiseling a niche for the new hinge and clamping the cabinet box
And now a perfect little cabinet nestled under the stairs
In the shot above, you can see the expanse of brick wall.  It's not real brick, but the same brick veneer I used in the kitchen and which I described in detail in the previous post.  We think it does give some much needed warmth to this chilly little basement bathroom.  The wall is bare now, but once we have fewer things to do to the structure of the house, we look forward to perusing antique stores for an old porthole to hang on this wall.
I noticed that Restoration Hardware had introduced a porthole medicine cabinet, but although I like their fixtures and their washstands--their functional items--I don't like the idea of decorating with their objects.  I like to be my own collector, so we'll save the porthole as the object of a future quest.

the space saving washstand...
with weathered oak base from Restoration Hardware

 RH Bistro toilet roll holder --simple, perfect
RH Bistro faucet
We offer one little caveat about the Bistro faucet, which looks beautiful, but comes with the wrong handle cartridge.  All of the Restoration Hardware faucets are shipped with cartridges for lever handles.  This works perfectly for faucet styles with lever handles.  Lever taps open by having their handles pulled in towards each other.  In other words, the hot side opens with a counter-clockwise motion, while the cold opens with a clockwise motion.  With cross handles, both taps should open with a counter-clockwise twist (right-y tight-y, left-y loose-y).  So, after several days of deciding whether we could live with it (we couldn't), we contacted Restoration Hardware, who were a little slow to comprehend the problem, but helpful once they understood.  They put us in touch with Newport Brass who manufactures their fixtures, and who sent us the correct part.  Now order is restored and we have no more fights with the tap.

I'm going to wrap up this post with a few progress shots, just for the record.  We've learned that a small room requires just as much planning and almost as many resources as a large one, but the rewards can be great too.

An early progress shot showing framing, plumbing, and my hardworking dad

during construction, bricks partly mortared
and after, from similar perspectives
the cabinet niche under the stairs and N hoisting the cabinet into place

For reference:
Faucet, toilet roll holder, tilt mirror, and towel ring, all Bistro in polished nickel 
Weathered Oak sink console
1920s factory sconces polished nickel --all from Restoration Hardware
Toilet Toto Eco Drake
Paint Farrow and Ball shaded white on walls, pointing on ceiling, slipper satin on trim
Porcelain floor tile, Casa Dolce Casa  Pietra/2 'Fiora' from Stone Tile International
Door and cabinet hardware and cabinet door reclaimed from this, our very own old house

Thanks for coming on the half bath tour.  I'm determined to write a post about our master bath renovation as soon as I take some good photos.  Until then, here's a glimpse...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Our new old yellow brick interior wall

Our house is an 1889 yellow brick Victorian.  Outside, the brick is painted (we posted about that here), but we've long entertained the idea of exposing some of the brick walls inside.  This idea seemed especially plausible in the kitchen, where a large part of the space was once a back porch and two of the walls were formerly exterior walls albeit clad over in the 1940's with wire and plaster.  However, when we started gutting the kitchen prior to the renovation, we discovered that the brick was not in the greatest shape under its mask of plaster.  In one place, the column of brick holding up the laminated beam that supports the second story of the house was in dire need of repair (read about that epic saga here).  We were concerned that pulling the wire mesh and plaster from the other wall could weaken the mortar and damage its structural integrity.

So, not wanting to give up on the rich texture a brick wall can give, but not wanting to harm the house, we looked for alternatives.   At first, we had thought we might cover up our original brick column (now reinforced with concrete), but ultimately we decided we loved it--it had history, and instead of disguising it behind soulless drywall, we would use it as reference and try to match it.
Call me crazy, but I think the patina on our original brick wall is beautiful
The brick has a gorgeous patina of age typical of yellow brick houses, and is now more gray than yellow.  In fact, the brick and concrete column has shifted its role from something to be disguised to becoming the basis for our whole kitchen colour palette.  Now, every new material entering the kitchen has to get vetted up against the brick wall before it gets the okay. 
There are many options for cladding your walls on the market:  brick or stone veneers sliced from the real thing, flexible panels cast in foam or vinyl from real stone (the outside of Centro Restaurant on Yonge St. North of Eglinton in Toronto is clad in this product, and it did turn our heads at first, but it didn't really suit our house), or gypsum products, also typically cast from the real thing.
stone veneer on Centro Restaurant exterior
  We wanted a product that we could easily install on our own, and one that we could customize after the fact to match our existing brick.  In the end, we settled on a product from a local Toronto company called Soho Brick.  They have taken casts of century old brick walls, which they use to mold thin "brick" veneers from gypsum and pigment, and then mount them onto a flexible mesh backing.  The bricks are lightweight and very easy to cut (or break for that matter).

A panel of the brick veneer on mesh backing from Soho Brick
One of the veneers -- front, back,
and side

At first we were put off by the bright clear colouring that seemed to scream fake, but the Soho brick people showed us how readily the bricks absorbed any patina you can concoct, and we, or at least I, was sold.  I am a visual artist, and I knew I could make these bricks look the way we wanted.  N remained slightly skeptical but agreed to put his faith in me.

Once we got our brick home, we promptly stacked it up in what will be the future dining room and let it sit there collecting dust and forming an awkward immovable obstacle for a good year.  Fellow renovators, please let this be a cautionary tale.  Do not purchase a product until you plan to use it.  This is a lesson we have yet to learn.  Our house is full of supplies for upcoming projects.  But we did get started on the brick wall this past summer, and finished up, well, just a couple of days before hosting Christmas celebrations.  I know.

Here is a much abridged description of our brick veneer installation:
Individual bricks

Since we were trying to approximate the look of our existing brick wall, we made a couple of changes to the installation process. First, the spacing of the bricks on their mesh panels wasn't quite tight enough, so we decided to remove the bricks from the mesh backing and apply them individually.  This made the job a little more labour intensive, but gave us much more control over the final result.

It's a start!
We used a laser level to mark guidelines at appropriate intervals around the room. Then I began the slow process of applying the veneers.  Because the existing wall was quite irregular, I coated both the brick and the wall with mastic adhesive using a toothed trowel.
Corner pieces for corners
One of our walls (the same wall that once was an exterior brick wall, but is now a brick wall covered in wire mesh and plaster, and recovered in fake brick)  included an outside corner which required special corner pieces.
The faux (fake is such an ugly word, don't you think?) brick wall, pre-mortar
If you've ever pulled down the interior walls of a double brick house, you'll have noticed that the inside layer of brick will have a piece of wood replacing a course of bricks every so often. This wood would act as a nailing strip for supports for the lathe and plaster walls.  I thought we could incorporate this feature into our brick wall to act as a nailing strip for hanging art.  We happened to have a couple of the original roughsawn
The added nailing strip, cut from an original stud, complete with Thanksgiving turkey
With the bricks adhered with mastic to the wall, our next step was mortar.  We wanted to try to match the original mortar joints as closely as possible.
The original lime mortar, pale and soft, note inscribed convex 'u' detail
We set about educating ourselves about the differences between mortar historically, and mortar today.  Mortar plays a crucial structural role in the life of masonry buildings,  but today, most masonry is decorative, not structural, and the traditional art of the mason is almost lost.  Old lime based mortar, although soft, had an ability to absorb water and mend tiny fissures to maintain its structure.  Modern mortar, with portland cement as a main component is brittle and dark and can actually damage soft clay bricks because of its inflexibility.  This is why repointing a brick house, if not done correctly and by someone knowledgeable about traditional mortars, can actually damage the structure. Nonetheless, despite the fascinating information we were gleaning about mortar types and properties, what we were really after was a way of duplicating the look of our original mortar joints.    After much searching for an appropriate pointing tool to duplicate that line in our original mortar, we found the website of  Dr. Gerard Lynch, a master bricklayer, historic brickwork consultant, and lecturer in the UK.  He also makes traditional and custom jointing tools. A few emails, photos, and a money order later, we had purchased our very own custom jointing tool.

Our custom jointing tool inscribed with its maker's initials, GL
Dr. Lynch, who goes by the moniker of Red Mason (I believe he was a redhead in his youth) had informed us that our mortar joints had been ruled and tooled after the fact with that detail in order to give our irregular clay bricks a more even appearance.  The tool he sent us does not produce the convex bead, but a concave groove--he did warn us that a clay impression of the wall would be better than photos at conveying the tool needed, but the ruled detail looks very similar the original from any distance.

more of our mortaring arsenal, minus the mortar bag

Mortaring was a messy business.  We used a mortar bag, which is like a giant cake icing bag, and N tried several different ratios of cement, sand, lime, and water before striking on the perfect consistency and colour (lime lightens the mortar considerably). 
the perfect mortar consistency for good flow is quite stiff as shown here
Achieving the right consistency for the mortar to flow freely from the bag is tricky and counterintuitive.  You'd think, as we did at first, that mortar should be wetter to flow better, but the opposite was actually true.
wet mortar above, dry mortar, already tooled and ruled, below
Despite the labour and mess, the project was becoming more and more satisfying.  But there was still the pressing issue of colour.

The original brick right, orangey fake on the left
Could I ever make that orange brick veneer match our original wall?
A trial patina concocted from leftover house paint very diluted with water

Here are two details of the wall as it is today under two different lighting conditions, and with some of our original house trim, stripped, restained, and tacked up. I think I'll go a little farther with the grey patina in places. I stopped just before Christmas because of time, not a sense of completion, and haven't resumed my efforts, yet.

warm light...
cool light, but neither quite accurate

Another view, more confusing lighting, facing the French doors
And here's the facing wall, the once exterior wall, looking a little as it might've if we'd torn off all the plaster, I've already toned down the orange tone, but haven't applied any grey patina of age just yet:

We liked it so much (and had so much brick leftover from our original purchase) that we repeated the brick wall detail in the new half bath downstairs.  Final pictures of that room next post, promise.  I'll post final brick wall photos when the entire kitchen is finished. We can hardly believe it, but it appears that we're on the final stretch.  Our cabinetmaker tells us that installation of our cabinets should begin in mid-February.  Yesterday I tagged a slab of marble for the island counter (I'll post about that, too).  I'm about to order our sinks and prep sink faucet.  It's all beginning to come together. We are excited.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Organization for a New Year of Renovation

This was a low-glamour project, but so satisfying.   While struggling for the billionth time to find some job-specific tool we knew we possessed but couldn't locate in the ongoing renovation upheaval of our home, something snapped and we knew we needed to get organized.   And so we decided to channel our inner grade nine shop teacher and turn the outside (and out-of-sight) wall of our basement bathroom into a tool wall.

The new tongue and groove wall during construction

The dry run
A place for everything (note hacked IKEA plant stand for safe chisel storage)
A little visual punning: cans for cans

We used outdoor light fixtures from Union Lighting in Toronto (under $20 ea)
Once the wall was organized there was no stopping our quest for order.  We decided to put a bank of drawers across the corridor from the tool wall.  We purchased IKEA base cabinets: four drawers per cabinet--3 shallow, one deep, Harlig drawer fronts (plus added soft close mechanism which is non standard only for Harlig), a Numerar countertop, card bin pulls from Lee Valley tools.  Et voilĂ :
Our bank of drawers  (the pink glow on the walls is F&B floor paint primer leftover from the floor) 

No more futile searching for the perfect drill bit
Tool wall and drawers were in place, but we had more organizing to do.  One small parts storage unit (steel case, clear bins) from an industrial supply store in Mississauga, plus several oddly satisfying hours of sorting and labelling our small parts, and:

Our very own home depot

Truth be told, "a place for everything and everything in its place" has not been a mantra of ours.  But for now at least we can face the new year fully confident that we can find any tool or small part we need for our future projects.  

We'll see how long order reigns.