Gneiss House

Low-pressure home metamorphism

Guest bedroom redesign

With warmer weather and open windows, I’ve been catching up on painting jobs. I’ve now finished my redesign of the guest bedroom, including furniture and decorations, paint, floors, and molding. Here is the before view:


(from the listing)

And after:


The panorama view makes it look bigger than it really is, but you can see more of the room this way!


Red wall!


Panorama-less view



Basement Floor, Part 2

After my last post, I continued restoring my basement floor by adding a polyurethane topcoat. I used the leftover polyurethane from refinishing my hardwood floors (Zar Ultra Max brand), but I was significantly less concerned with a perfect appearance this time. The floor is already uneven and this is more for safety and utility than aesthetics. I didn’t end up using a pole applicator because the applicator cloths are meant for smooth floors and would snag on the rough areas, so instead I just used a big paintbrush and went to town. I applied the coat more liberally than I would have with a hardwood floor (since with hardwood, you want it to look very even with no milky areas or big droplets, so you want really thin, even coats), so I wouldn’t have to do more than one topcoat layer. I missed a few spots and had to go back and touch them up, but overall it was a quick job (if a little hard on my back and knees).

Due to my geology teaching profession, I may have also come into a few sets of lightly-used, vinyl orthomimid and small theropod trackways…




(Tip: If you want to do this with any kind of floor decals, map out and lay down the decals before applying the topcoat. Then they won’t rip or peel up, no matter how much traffic the floor receives, and cleaning will be easy.)

Restoring a basement floor

My house has an unfinished basement. I use it almost every day to walk out the back door to my driveway, and slightly less often for laundry, major projects at my fabulous new workbench that I built all by myself, and storage of basementy things. I keep the cats’ food and litter down there and they can access it with a pet door.

I really like having a basement, but it had some problems when I acquired the house. Some of them are low priority problems, like the plaster walls are getting a little crumbly and need some fresh paint in a few places, and the wiring in the ceiling down there is a little haphazard (but not dangerous). The appliances are old but do their jobs reasonably well.

The high priority problem has been the floor, which has 1950s-era checkerboard black and gray tile. Typically that tile had asbestos in the adhesive lining, and while mine has never been tested it was a good bet that they were asbestos-bearing. The tile wasn’t friable (breaking under the pressure I can exert with my fingers), but in some areas the tiles had broken off and been removed by the previous owner. It seemed likely that over time, more tiles would break, because the jagged edges were exposed and nothing was protecting them. The tiles were uneven and the floor contour was gently buckled in places, suggesting the tile was going to continue to fragment.

Asbestos removal is not something I particularly want to do in my home: disturbing the fibers is the best way to get them airborne and increase acute exposure, and the price of that kind of remediation effort would be extremely high. But I also wanted to slow the process of tile loss and prevent the backing from being exposed. In the meantime, I was nervous about ever sweeping or cleaning in the basement, even in areas where the tile appeared intact, because I didn’t know if there were fibers that had been mobilized in the past and that resided between the tiles. I really didn’t want to have to mop the floor every time the cats made a mess with their litter (wetting a surface is the best way to keep asbestos fibers out of the air, so wet cleaning was really my safest option).

After some helpful internet research about how to restore a floor with breaking asbestos-lined tile, I settled on the following approach:

  1. Remove all my stuff that could be reasonably removed from the floor. The work bench is too big and heavy to be removed, so I ended up moving it out from the wall slightly to access the wall edge, and doing the final step (painting) in two stages;
  2. Move cat accoutrements upstairs and lock cats out of the basement. They were not too bright about this and kept trying to get into the basement to see what was going on down there;
  3. Wet-clean the entire surface as well as I could, understanding that this is an unfinished basement, so it may never be perfect (and indeed, it was not);
  4. Apply a latex primer to the exposed concrete (or concrete + adhesive) surfaces and the edges of broken tiles;
  5. Use a premixed floor patch filler to fill minor holes and patch the smallest broken and/or exposed tile edges;
  6. Apply a self-leveling underlayment cement layer to all exposed concrete and broken surfaces to fill all gaps; ImageImageImageImage
  7. Paint the entire floor (tile and cement alike) with an epoxy masonry paint to seal up all potential dust from tile edges. The masonry paint was recommended by hardware store employees over standard basement floor paint because they predicted it was likely to bond better with the mixed underlying floor materials (the old vinyl tiles vs. new concrete underlayment). I cut in with a brush at the wall (thickly to fill all the grooves), and then I applied as a thick single coat to the rest of the floor with a semi-rough to rough roller on a pole for easy application from a standing position.

ImageImageImageThis turned out to be a pretty easy job that I could do over the course of just three or four days, including a weekend and a couple weeknights after work. In the end I did not scarify the tile surfaces to scratch them up to accept the paint better, because they were already pretty rough and I don’t want to damage asbestos-bearing tile any more than necessary. If that means the paint needs to be touched up sometimes, so be it–it’s easy to apply and I have plenty left over for that.

The texture of the masonry paint is softer and less glossy than a typical floor paint, but it seems strong. If the softer texture becomes a problem, I plan to topcoat it with polyurethane (and I still have a lot of polyurethane left from the hardwood floor restoration project, so I’ll just need a new applicator brush pad. And to remove the cats for another couple days). Overall, it is safer and also a big aesthetic improvement!

ETA: After a couple days of walking on it, I’ve decided in favor of the poly topcoat. I’ll update with the final result sometime next week…

Update: Baseboard molding

I never posted about my other winter project: installing base shoe molding throughout the house! So here is a quick overview:

The previous owners had ripped out (in some cases, apparently violently) the baseboard shoe molding through the entire house. This did make it relatively easy to refinish the floors, because there was a little border around the edges of all the rooms where the floor did not have to look perfect. But I did eventually need to replace that molding for a finished look that did not include big gaps under my walls.

I ended up deciding that I do not need to be a pure DIYer: painting 300′ of molding by hand would have taken me forever and barely saved me any money. So I bought prepainted base shoe molding at Home Depot. The price was reasonable and that meant all I had to do was measure it, cut it, and install it in the house.

Measuring: I started with a measuring tape and writing things down on a piece of paper, but ended up just lining up the molding around the whole house and marking it with a pencil. Easier to keep track of where all the pieces had to go, and very easy to mark them correctly that way.

Cutting: I did not have a miter box, and when I borrowed one from my parents, I discovered that it was very difficult to anchor the box firmly enough to use it properly (since it wasn’t mine to install anywhere permanently). I did not at this point have the workbench constructed, so I did the next best thing: mount my little portable table vise to my dining room table (with padding to prevent scratches), cover the surrounding area with newsprint, and go to town with a hacksaw. I lined up a protractor with the pieces that needed to be cut on an angle (like in the corners) and carefully marked the angles, and tried (with reasonable success) to keep the hacksaw on those marks. I was able to cut all the molding for the whole house in two nights.

Installing: I rented a nail gun from Home Depot. Nail guns are really fun for humans, but they terrify dogs, so maybe wait for a nice day and put the dog outside while you do this. Overall this was really, really easy, but 1) use a knee pad, and 2) it is a little tricky if the baseboard molding behind the shoe molding isn’t flush with the floor, such that you are nailing into a gap. It takes some practice to angle the gun correctly to nail the shoe molding in that circumstance.

When I have a chance to refinish the replacement floorboards, I’ll have to do this again for the few areas that need those floorboards (I couldn’t install the molding without floorboards). More fun with nail guns in my future!

Spring #2

Spring has sprung, and with it yard work! I have been working to get the yard ready for spring, take notes on what I want to change or add for next year, and begin the planting and yardwork seasons.

First, I ordered my seeds over the winter, and got everything in the ground that should go in before the last hard frost (peas, one strawberry plant, cauliflower, onions, carrots), and since we had a few warm days in a row in mid-March, I transplanted the hardy parsley and cilantro that made it through the winter to new areas. Then while I waited for the last frost, I started removing obvious weeds from the yard, cleaned up sticks that fell in the recent winter storms, and accumulated tools and replacements, like new work gloves.

Early April was warm unseasonably early, which was refreshing after such a cold March and delayed spring flowering. Once we were clearly safely past the last frost, a little before mid-April, I planted the post-frost seeds (the other herbs except for basil, an extensive oversow of my alternative lawn mix with some viola seeds added in, and a few other flowers to try out) and trimmed the rose bushes (FINALLY, I can walk around them without getting stuck with thorns!). We had some heavy rain right after I sowed, so while I’m concerned that some areas may have washed out a little, overall the cool nights plus rainy weather seems to have forced germination within just a few days.

The spring report so far: my magnolia tree was, as always, a sight to behold:


And the other early spring flowers, most of which were planted by the previous homeowner, came in nicely, if a big sparse. I now know that I will want to fill in the yard substantially this fall with early spring bulbs, to really bring out that show.


The ground is still pretty bare, but we’re starting to see some flowers–the forsythia looked beautiful this year. (Dog for scale.)


Refinishing tables

First, apologies for the long hiatus. Spring is always a very busy time at my job, so I fell behind on both house projects and updates! A lot of the up and coming projects require some ventilation, too, so they had to wait for spring weather. But I’ve had this one in the queue for a while and finally finished the project, so now I can finish writing it up for you!

Backstory: I acquired my dining room table for cheap from craigslist about five years ago. It’s a heavy, cherry dining table (with two leaves!) in a classic, elegant design. Soon after purchasing and precariously driving it home tied to the roof of my parents’ car, we repaired a dog-chewed table leg foot (my dad used wood putty to reform the foot and then stained it to match the table) and rewaxed the top surface. I also scrubbed it with a nice polishing wood cleaner several times over and successfully drew out any cigarette odors remaining in the wood from the previous owners. (Really, owners of wood furniture, do you have to smoke indoors? And then resell your furniture?)


The dining set, in my old apartment immediately after I bought it.

Anyway, the furniture wax polish never seemed to do a great job: wet rings from bottles and glasses, hot items placed on cork trivets or cloth placemats, spilled liquids, warm cat prints, and cat claw scratches all seemed to go right through the wax and damage the finish. I was thinking of rewaxing it again someday soon, but the timeline was accelerated when I spilled half a bowl of near-boiling chicken soup through and under a plastic placemat and created a big white rectangle in the finish.


One side of the table, with assorted moisture stains and rings. Some of the rings predate my ownership of the table.


The newest chicken soup stain, with some older white stains and scratches.

I didn’t entirely understand what was going on at first, so I initially tried stripping the wax with various products: a white vinegar solution, 409 surface cleaner plus a serious scrubbing with a scrubby dish sponge, a commercial wax remover with mineral spirits. The 409 did the best job of removing all the existing wax from past polishing coats, but it did not remove the scratches or white rings/spots/(rectangular placemat shapes). Further research revealed that the wax wasn’t the culprit (though stripping it was not a bad idea): the underlying finish was old and no longer performing its job, so the damage was to the finish itself.

My research had showed that I needed a restoring oil product and ultra fine steel wool. Unfortunately my local hardware store was out of the shade I wanted for the refinishing oil, so I did some dry removal of the damaged finish with the steel wool while I waited for my internet order to arrive (note: it was cheaper to order the refinisher online, anyway!). The dry sanding revealed that the finish was indeed extremely old and damaged: once exposed, I could clearly see hairline cracks throughout the finish. I was able to remove most of the damaged/stained white marks.


Dry sanding scratches and white stain marks. Action shot!


Same area, rotated and after sanding out the stain (but not the scratches). It’s gone!


The whole table after dry sanding. The chicken soup stain was on the front right side. (Note that this picture was taken in the evening, with just artificial light and the shades closed. That is why the lighting looks yellower.)

The product I had ordered was Restor-A-Finish, in cherry (the walnut was not warm enough and a little too dark, but the cherry was probably a smidge too red. This did not end up mattering). Once it arrived, I had to wait for a warm enough day to have the windows open for several hours while doing this job, because this is an oil-based, fumy product that is not safe to breathe in enclosed spaces. But it is worth the fumes. I went back with the steel wool and gently worked the refinishing oil into the whole table, first working in a circular motion with particular focus on visibly damaged areas, and then working in the direction of the wood grain over the whole table to restore the entire finish. I then went back over with dry, lint-free disposable rags and worked the oil into the table and wiped it clean. Then I left the fan on and windows open and took a nice long nap.

After my nap, the table was fully dry (and looked excellent!). The instructions on the refinishing product said to wait half an hour before adding a wax polish, and I ultimately waited an hour or two before starting the waxing step. I used basic old furniture polishing wax, nothing fancy. I put a little bit of the wax in a microwave-safe bowl and microwaved it for five seconds at a time until it was just slightly warmed and softened (but not melted, not even a little. I recommend being careful doing this: waxes are flammable and should never be overheated. It also would not work very well for waxing furniture if it was fully melted!). I did this because the temperature was a little chilly with the windows open, so the wax was quite stiff. I am also a petite person, and I figured that a warmer wax would penetrate nooks and crannies and coat the table more evenly without requiring a lot of physical strength. Having waxed this table once before, I do think it was easier to apply this way. For the application, I used a clean, dry paper towel to scoop out a little bit of wax and a time and rubbed it into the table, alternating between circular motions and working it in with the grain. I removed any excess, wiping with the grain of the wood, and then took the dog for a nice long walk around the neighborhood.

When I got back to my stinky house, I started buffing off the excess wax. I don’t have a buffer or buffing attachment for a power tool, so I did this by hand with clean, dry disposable rags. Because of my lack of enormous physical strength, this was the hardest part of the job. Instead of doing one really hard buffing job, I instead came back to the table to keep buffing it incrementally over the course of a couple days, until the rags were coming out clean. I did a final buffing with a cloth fleece rag, which did a great job for the final touch. I touched it up with a polishing cleanser (I like the Method wood cleanser), and voilĂ : a refinished table!


The refinished dining table, with dog for scale. (Note that this picture was taken midday on a sunny day with the shades open, so the lighting is different than in the last picture.)


That chicken soup stained area.

Winter projects

I may have built a fence in the winter, but it wasn’t planned that way. My other winter projects are warm and indoors.

First: cutting and installing new base shoe molding throughout the entire house, including closets. I saved myself some energy and after I went all around the house with a measuring tape and added up the amount I needed (several hundred feet), I bought it pre-painted from Home Depot. Lazy, maybe, but still reasonably cheap and I had enough else going on. I measured out each piece and manually cut them all using a borrowed hacksaw and a small portable vise on my dining room table. It took about a week of work in the evenings and on weekends. Also it was fun. I haven’t actually hammered them in yet, though. When I do, I promise pictures. It will just look like normal rooms! You won’t even notice!

Second: so that I no longer have to vise things to my dining room table, I purchased lumber and a kit of table legs to build a work table in my basement! Now I no longer need to have all my tools and things laying around on the floor across the basement. I used the 2×4 Basics workbench with shelves kit. Here it is, nearly finished and before adding shelves (fluffy cat for scale):

Work table!

It’s a table!

And here is the finished product:

It's a table!

Look how fancy it is!

My review of the kit is that overall, it’s really nice. I was one screw short for the shelves but have plenty of my own to supplement, so that wasn’t a problem. The screws for the base are very long, though, longer than my drill bit, so it was hard to drill long enough pilot holes, and far too hard to screw them in otherwise. The holes in the hard plastic legs to guide the screws were also very short, so they were poor guides when it came to angle: A number of the screws went in a little too perpendicular and ended up poking through the back, and my parents and I had to try to cut and file them down after the table was built. That said, the instructions about how to measure out the lumber I needed and how to assemble the basic table were clear and easy to follow. The instructions for the shelving were less clear, since they had to be modified for this table assemblage and were not as clearly laid out, but I figured it out after a few minutes. Overall a good kit, and I’m very proud of the finished product!

Remaining winter tasks are to permanently install all the base molding, and to finally replace the floor panels we had to remove during carpet removal because they had been so badly damaged by the carpet installers. Thanks again to craigslist magic, I have acquired old oak panels of the right height–no easy task! They all need to have nails removed and be sanded and refinished. I plan to do that job ON MY NEW WORKTABLE.