Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Marble Bath: Statuary Marble Tub Surround and Deck

The marble arrived and it is a thing of beauty:

Though warned by multiple sources, I stuck to my guns on a honed finish. I just don't like ultra shiny marble. Empire covered sealing upon fabrication, and again after installation. And I will take their advice to reseal it myself every couple of months (I'll let the "water test" be my guide).

We have a separate shower, where the shampooing will be done, so I'm pretty confident we can keep oils and other natural substances from causing undo staining. And in the end, I like the look of naturally aged stone, so I will live with the natural aging and discoloration over time.

Gabrielle from Empire Cabinetry, adhering the long apron to the cement backerboard frame

The installation was challenging. The double aprons meet at a beveled edge. And the deck corner is sharp. All of that had to fit just so. 

And on-site, a space had to be cut for the access panel. We're installing a hand-held shower sprayer, and over time, the hoses will need to be replaced, Henry reminded me.

He thinks of everything!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tiling a Kitchen Backsplash with Subway Tile

This weekend, I finally got around to tiling the kitchen backsplash. I tiled right over the existing tile, which was a beige stone-look porcelain. I haven't made my cuts around the outlets yet or even grouted. But already you can see the difference: 

After painting the cabinets cream and tiling the backsplash in cream subway tiles
The cream-painted cabinets and backsplash serve to "mute" the wild peach undertones of the granite in a way that the old beige birch-look cabinets and stone-look backsplash did not:

The method I chose to use is a bit unorthodox, so I want to talk about that.

As I have mentioned before, I view my DIY of this kitchen as a temporary fix. We do plan to gut renovate the kitchen in the future. However, we live in a co-op apartment in New York City, so renovations of that scale require engineer's reports and architect renderings and a whole approval process, all of which could take a good deal of time. And in the meantime, I do not wish to live with drab.There are quick fixes that will make this kitchen not only "livable" but beautiful. And tiling this backsplash, however temporary, is an easy fix.

I found inspiration in this video by a guy named Terry Fahy, who, judging by his accent, is British:

Terry's method, while unconventional -- as you can see by the harsh reprimands from professional tilers he receives in his comments on YouTube -- is, as he says in his video, quite foolproof. And the things I like about his method are: 1. It is neat and tidy and 2. allows for foolproof tile alignment and 3. allows me to tile around the cuts and save them for another day.

You see, my plan is to save all of my cuts for a single afternoon, when I will rent a tile cutter and take care of them all in a few hours -- making most economic use of the tile cutter rental time. Afterwards, I will pick up my tile installation where I left off with no messy mastic to scrape away.

Because instead of mastic, I am using silicone adhesive. Yes, you heard right.

Why not silicone? I have tiled many a backsplash in my day, adhering ceiling tins or beadboard or what have you, using adhesive. To no bad end.

There is very little risk, in my opinion, to using adhesive on a kitchen backsplash. While I might think twice about using the method in a bathroom -- unless I was completely certain that the preceding tile job was water-tight -- a kitchen backsplash, especially MY kitchen backsplash, is very unlikely to encounter a whole lot of water. Ross and I are both neat cooks and clean up artists.

So, how do you tile using silicone adhesive? Like this:

The little plastic Xs are spacers. I have to give Terry Fahy credit for this. It's ingenious. By applying spacers to your adhesive, you keep the surface of the tiles level. That is, you can't push one in more deeply than another.


I didn't have to break out the leveler once during this job. And as you can see, my tiles are uniformly placed in the traditional brickwork pattern. They line up quite nicely:

Stay tuned for a future installment, when I grout the tiles with "linen" grout. It will be a few weeks, as next week is stage two of our move.

Did I mention that we have a three-part move? I call it "Yours, Mine, and Ours". When I moved in with Ross a few years ago, we meshed our belongings and avoided a lot of unpleasant decisions about whose furnishings to use by putting unused goods in storage. Now that we've lived together for a few years, these decisions are much easier to negotiate. And it helps that we are moving to a larger apartment.

Stage I of the move took place two weekends ago when we cleaned out our storage unit in Queens that held mostly "my stuff". Next week we will clean out the storage unit in Long Island that holds mostly "his stuff". The final week will be the official move of "our stuff" from his apartment which we are currently living in.

So, this weekend will be Stage II of the move, where we rent a cargo van and clean out the storage unit in Long Island. Did I mention the detour to Beall and Bell, where I put two little midcentury tables on hold? Stay tuned for that reveal.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Choosing Paint: Why Choosing a White Paint Color Is Harder than It Seems

I have always been a fan of Benjamin Moore Paint. My previous apartment was painted "Super White" and it looked fabulous. But it was pretty much an empty shell when I bought it, and the final look and feel was spare and ultra modern. 

My old apartment - after kitchen renovation
My new apartment, on the contrary, was built in 1946 and it has a real mid-century appeal that I would like not just to bring out but to honor. In addition, my new place has an eastern exposure, which means it's super bright in the morning but by night the walls take on a distinctly blue cast in shadow. 

Experts on color are divided on the issue of eastern exposure. Some say go with a white that has blue undertones -- don't fight the shadows. Others say go warmer to off set the bluish tinge most paint colors will take on, even in bright light.

What is a humble non-color-expert to do?

Well, I read up on BM whites in the two categories, cool and warm. And I heard about the favorites, Dove white and Decorator White. I collected a sample of each.

While googling white paint colors, I came across a paint brand I hadn't heard of: Farrow and Ball. This British paint company has a small but very appealing line of colors with lovely Anglosaxon names. My interest was piqued by Cornforth White (named after the famous architectural historian) and Blacked, a white with just a touch of black. The touch of black apparently gives this white a blue-gray cast in certain lights. That sounded very promising.

I collected samples of these as well. On the wall neither looked exactly white; they both looked distinctly gray to me. Of the two, I fell in love with Blackened, which had an etherial silver cast.

Farrow and Ball Blackened, BM Decorators White, BM Dove White, Farrow and Ball Cornforth White

Cornforth and Blackened against Benjamin Moore "White" trim

Farrow and Ball are ingenious marketers of their paint colors, especially to an English major and Anglophile like me. The names are curiosities: who can resist Churlish Green? I want to paint something that color just to give myself the excuse of getting to say it over and over. "Oh, the kitchen? That's Churlish Green. Farrow and Ball."

The white colors, especially, have delicious names. Dimpse, Match Stick, White Tie, Wevet. Wevet  is the name for cobweb. Ingenious! And the colors seemed true to their word as presented on the Farrow and Ball website.

Blackened is like salt blackened by pepper:

Matchstick does indeed look like the stump of a match pulled from an old fashioned matchbook. Like a dirty white. How I LOVE it!

White Tie, is like the corners of old money.

Wevet is very much exactly what cobweb (a wevet) white would look like if you smeared it on a wall:

And who could resist Cornforth White? Named after the British architectural historian who documented all the great homes of England -- a la Downtown Abbey. 

I was actually praying that Cornforth would look great on my walls so that I would have an excuse to use it (and say it) every day. 

But it was Blackened that won the day. I was all set to hand my contractor the Farrow and Ball color to pick up.

But... Then I did a bit of research into the preparation needed to use Farrow and Ball colors, and I was dismayed. It seemed to require several coats of special primers and preparation. It seemed formulated for old world plaster walls. And U.S. painter forums revealed many many issues in dry times and with bubbling. U.S. contractors seemed to unanimously disdain it in the forums I read.

It was rather intimidating, really.

My renovation plan with my contractor covered paint. But it did not stipulate special British primers and preparation. What if it bubbled or refused to dry, a big complaint in the forums I perused? What would I do then?

I didn't have a lot of time to make a decision. Henry needed the paint colors this week in order to secure the subcontractor's time window.

I decided to go with Benjamin Moore paint, my tried and true. But sleeping on it that night, I could't get Blackened out of my mind. It's silvery magic called me, felt true to my home, the color my home needed to bring it that Mad Men magic.

When I woke up the next morning, I called my favorite BM paint store and told the paint clerk about my dilemma. And he said the magic words I was longing to hear: We can reproduce some Farrow and Ball colors.

I was in luck! Blackened was one of them.

And it's perfect. To me, it's more a gray than a white. But I won't quibble.

Part I of the move: The Books

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

My Jackson Heights Apartment Is in NY Times "The Hunt"!

NY Times "The Hunt" just covered a couple's move from Astoria to JH and I am featured in it!

Don't blink or you might miss the reference: 

"Early in their hunt, they saw a nice two-bedroom at an open house at Carlton House, a 1946 brick co-op building....Another two-bedroom on a higher floor, not as nice, was listed at $279,000. They disliked the wall of mirrors in the living room....The place they liked sold for $416,000, and the place they didn’t for $265,000.)" 

The place they finally settled on was $319,000, in my same line.

The apartment they disliked due to the "wall of mirrors" is mine! 

It's the 1,000+ sq ft. 2-BR in Jackson Heights that I snapped up for $265k. Just as I said I would in my article that Brownstoner Queens picked up last summer: Carroll Gardens Blogger Gives up Her Neighborhood for…Queens.

To the left you can just barely see that wall of mirrors the way it looked back when we and The Hunt couple saw it:

Offending mirrors to the left!

Here is a more head-on, albeit dark view (sorry, taken with my phone):

Shall we dance?

It really was an eyesore. But that wall of mirrors is now a wall of bookcases, as detailed in my post Built-In Bookcases: An Ikea Hack: 

Wall of Mirrors becomes a wall of books; Haiku fan raises the level of discourse

Problem fixed, for less than $800.

Even though I ripped it out immediately, I adore that wall of mirrors, because I know that I have it to thank for the incredible bargain that I got. 

Here is a more recent after shot:

We have started to move some books and furniture in from storage

The Carlton is an as good as full service building with on-staff porters and a nighttime doorman and a live-in super, plus $100 a month parking.

This is the floorplan of all the apartments in the M line:

All are the same, except that our unit is on the top floor.

I actually did the opposite of The Hunts. I first looked at the more expensive unit, fell in love with the building and the layout of that particular line, then began trolling StreetEasy for a bargain. I found this one, which was in contract at $275k and I emailed the broker to let her know that, should her contract fall through, I was interested. Lo and behold, that is exactly what happened. By the time I was in negotiations, the place had been on the market for more than six months. This and its cosmetic faults put me in a good bargaining position.

We closed in January and are in the final weeks of the renovation right now -- the place is going to be a show-stopper when I'm done. The bath is being gut-renovated and will have a deep soaking tub encased in stauary marble, there is a separate shower, and the floor will feature handmade tiles from Heath Ceramics in California.

I derived beveled-tile and modern hex floor inspiration in the work of San Francisco architect Paul Riley, which I read about in Remodelista:


I bought my home for $265k and it appraised for within $10k of the $319k that The Hunt couple paid. For far less than the $54k difference in purchase price, I'm getting the same apartment, renovated to my specifications on someone else's dime. 

That's Renov8or gold!

My apartment was a below market find: A spacious apartment, designed by architect Philip Birnbaum (who went on to design Trump Tower in his later years), in a sound co-op that has good financials and offers welcome amenities. 

Cosmetic issues certainly kept perspective buyers from seeing the potential. The mirrored walls were dated and their condition an eyesore. The apartment was painted a bland yellow, the floors were scarred by pet damage, and security gates and air conditioners blocked nearly every view. Even recent bathroom and kitchen upgrades were uninspired and lacked finesse and attention to detail (fixtures were off center and the bathtub was in backwards -- with the backrest under the faucets!). 

The tub was in backwards, with the backrest under the (off center) faucet

I do understand how off-putting renovation work can seem and that many people prefer to purchase a home in move-in condition. I would rather find something under-valued and put my own stamp on it -- with the help of my contractor Henry Almeida of Almeida Renovations in Kew Gardens, a real collaborator with whom I've worked on several past projects.

I just can't stop evangelizing Jackson Heights!

If you are a perspective buyer, there are amazing deals to be had. 

Don't avoid cosmetic imperfections, seek them out! 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Choosing a Marble Slab

Today I visited a marble fabricator in Brooklyn - Empire Cabinets and Marble. And I viewed a few slabs that might work. I'm loving the deep veining of Statuary Marble.

Henry is ready to begin tiling the bathroom. The beveled subway field tiles are in -- at Tiles by Kia in Astoria. I have not used this vendor before, but I believe in giving business to neighborhood distributors whenever possible. (I hope I don't come regret this decision, as my bullnoses are already over a month late. Henry is going to work around them.)

Henry is also working around the late-arriving floor tile, which if you recall is being custom made by Heath Ceramics in California. He is using some of the samples I purchased from Heath to estimate the height of the floor. And he will begin tiling the wall, leaving floor tile space accordingly.

Meanwhile, it is time for me to order the marble that will make up the tub surround and deck.

Reading background material on marble at Houzz, the article Carrara Vs. Calacatta helped me rule out Carrara.

For this project, I want a pure white background and a very strong grey vein. I was leaning toward Calacatta, which is the most expensive choice. Then I saw White Statuario, and I knew that it was exactly the right marble for my bathtub surround and deck.

The pure white background and dark grey veining are very dramatic! This floor is a good example of statuary marble:


I was educated but not deterred by the informative article Why Marble Might Be Wrong for Your Bathroom

We are not using the marble on a highly trafficked area. We are not using it in the shower, where the oils and other natural ingredients of shampoos and rinses might stain it. Ross and I are both neatniks, and I don't anticipate any spills that are not cleaned up right away. We will pay extra to the fabricator for sealing, both during fabrication and after installation, and thereafter I will keep it up myself. I feel pretty confident about my choice of marble. 

Statuary marble is classic and timeless and yet clean and modern. Gray and white. It perfectly suits my design sensibility for this bathroom: which is timelessness. 

I want people to enter this room and pause to wonder: Is it new or has been there for decades?

Kohler Bathtub Delivered Damaged by FEDEX

Our tub arrived a few weeks back in the middle of a snowstorm. And it is a thing of beauty...

Except for a horrible crack in the bottom and ding in the corner flange...

The day it arrived, I got a call from the truck dispatcher while I was at work. She said the driver was steering his large freight truck around Jackson Heights, and there was nowhere in my ice bound residential neighborhood to park in front of my building and they couldn't reach my contractor Henry on his cell phone to meet them at the curb. 

I didn't know what to say. Don't they think about things like snowy weather and residential street traffic ahead of time?

While on hold, I overheard the Fedex dispatcher say that my driver had just hit a tree and the branch fell on a car, causing damage.


Meanwhile, I also could not reach Henry, who I knew was waiting at the apartment for the bathtub delivery (we had discussed it the night before); his cell phone was going straight to voicemail. Totally unlike him.

I had a sinking feeling that his phone was out of battery (and it would turn out that I was right).

Meanwhile, the truck driver was apparently traveling solo and unable to simply jump out of the truck to ring the doorbell and summon Henry.


Since when do truck drivers make deliveries solo, without a partner driving shotgun to help make the delivery? They can't even ring a bell?

Unfortunately, this is the world we are living in now, when delivery companies are squeezing every dime out of the bottom line. And that's why I'm writing this particular entry, which in fact, depresses me to recall.

The information I want to share with fellow Renov8ors: When your bathtub (or other big ticket item) arrives, pull it out of the crate. Do not feel bad about annoying the freight truck driver - and he will be annoyed for sure. Do not worry that you have other things to do to keep your renovation timeline. Do not be deterred by the fact that you can't even see anything due to the crate your tub is trapped in and the position of straps lowering it down to the curb. Take the F***ing thing out of its crate and fully inspect it. (What a farce the "inspection" clause is!)

My tub has a major crack in the bottom that was hidden by the straps that were lowering it to the curb.

And close up, it's really deep and feathered
It's in a prominent position

In addition to the crack in the bottom, there's also a major dent in the flange. 

The latter will be hidden by the marble apron and deck, but the crack in the bottom cannot be disguised. These are the types of damages caused when they stack these tubs in warehouses and freight trucks and the tubs take a tumble. (But, beware, Kohler insurance adjustors will try to say that you must have dropped a bottle of perfume on it.)

Henry missed these dings due to the crate packaging and position of the straps. And I'm paying the price now in the many hours and days that I have lost haggling back and forth with the Kohler insurance claims adjustor.

I can't tell you yet where my discussions with the Kohler claims adjusters will end. My friend John who is a developer says he that he has had this happen 8 or 9 times with Kohler bathtubs. They are fragile. The cast iron is strong and heavy but the enamel is fragile and easily fractures and the cracks feather.

A big thing like the Fedex truck hitting a car could cause a major crack. And that will put you in endless back and forth with the Kohler claims adjustor. Send me your good karma thoughts!

UPDATE: Kohler is replacing the tub! After a few rounds of emails, pictures of the tub, the box it came in, the label, and details about the weather conditions of the delivery day and the accident that I overheard the truck dispatcher reporting while I was on hold, Kohler claims adjusters came through for me. I am grateful. My whole bathroom remodel centers around this undermounted deep soaking tub with marble surround and deck. The new tub arrives today -- Henry and the guys are ready for it.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Replacing a Kitchen Sink Strainer Basket and Drain

For weeks I have been planning to replace the backsplash with a simple white subway tile. It's a project that is fairly easy to execute and will have a big visual payoff.

I had hoped to start that project this weekend, but the task that ended up getting my attention was not so sexy. The previous renovation was done a little over a year ago but already the shoddy fixtures were showing distress. The kitchen sink basket had started to peel and the sink was no longer holding water.  The faucet, which from a distance appeared to be brushed nickel but was actually painted plastic, was also peeling.

We decided to replace both with good quality chrome fixtures.

Delta Trisinic Faucet
Replacing a kitchen faucet and sink strainer basket is a very common DIY project and one that I had done before and was not afraid to tackle again. And Ross was pitching in to help.

Ross, ducking his head under the sink the minute he saw the camera
Ross is not a DIY aficionado by any means, but he is happy to pitch in when I need him. And frankly, it's often with plumbing. I don't have the hand and upper body strength to achieve the torque required in removing old plumbing fixtures and tightening new plumbing fixtures. So I was happy to have his help. And I think he was pretty proud of himself, too. (I'll make a Renov8or of him yet!)

We installed the new faucet in about an hour on Saturday.

The following day, I went back to replace the sink basket. I had ordered a top of the line chrome strainer basket from Kohler and I was relieved to see the very good quality of it. The washers were metal and rubber, no cardboard. And it had a unique tightening system that I hadn't seen before using screws. The result: you didn't need another person standing above while you tightened from below. This seemed like a one man job.

I removed the old strainer and wiped away the old plumber's putty, rolled some new plumber's putty in my hands creating a ring around the new strainer, and put it in place.


But I hadn't counted on what I would find when I went below to attach the new strainer to the tailpipe. As so often happens in these DIY projects, one look under the hood revealed pipes in very poor condition -- and another project altogether.

The tailpipe was splitting along the seam and the drain was rotting away
That morning when I woke up early and hit home depot for supplies to switch out the strainer basket and the rotten plumbing below, I had not anticipated this would be an all-day job. I put a chicken in the oven around 10 and told Ross I'd be back in an hour or so and to remove the bird when the timer went off.

As it happens, I got home about 5 hours later, after multiple trips to home depot and multiple cuttings and fittings of PVC tailpipe. On my final trip to HD, I brought the PVC kit back with me to get the advice of the plumber. It turned out that my kit was defective (not me!). The wrong type of washers had been supplied -- reducers instead of washers.

Once I figured out the problem, I was home free.

My DIY replacement of a sink basket and tailpipe