Sunday, September 9, 2012

From inspiration to fruition: The kitchen project

I have owned our house, the castle, since I was in college. When I bought it, the entire thing was very humble, simple, and--let's be honest--kind of run down. I've done my best to class it up over the years, doing small (and sometimes massive) overhauls.

The most recent project has been a kitchen update.

I'm finally sharing how things have been going the last couple of months, along with some hardships and words of advice.

The best part about do-it-yourself projects is that I get to tap into my imaginative, creative side. Taking time dreaming about the space I hope to improve is just as rewarding as doing the work. I've been envisioning what I wanted to do with the kitchen for years, so this part came very quickly. I shared my ideas with my wife, Michelle, and she concurred with everything.

The actual purchasing of materials is fun if you have an unlimited budget. Michelle and I live on a very limited, restrictive budget and, consequently, I've been gathering materials for this project for over a year: ceramic floor tile when it was on sale, an exterior door to receive a tax credit, two cans of free paint with coupons, and ordering the cabinets during a huge sale and opening a store credit account to receive 0% financing to help pay for them over time. The list goes on...

Inherent in the definition of "do-it-yourself" is actual work. I prepared by setting aside some serious time to my kitchen project, even though this type of work was not my first. I worked in stages over several months (utilizing vacations and weekends) since I did not have a large block of time to do everything. I asked friends and family for help along the way. And coerced others (mostly Michelle).

Below is the progress in pictures, along with a little play-by-play of how everything came together.

Demolition is fun. And therapeutic. I ripped the old cabinets out of the wall in less than an hour.
Before picture: These are the old hanging wall cabinets
that I painted white when I first moved into the house.
Before picture: This is another shot of the old cabinets.
Our over-the-range microwave was old and not working so we took it down.
Yes, we lived for a time without a microwave. This was not fun.

I enlisted the help of my good friend, Russ, for this stage of the project.

Words of advice: Houses are not perfect! The ceiling may be crooked so I couldn't rely on measurements from there. I measured the entire room and then left about half an inch from the ceiling. I screwed a 1x4 board (along what would be the bottom ledge of the new cabinets) into the wall and made sure it was level. I then located where the studs are in the wall and pre-marked their location (or since the castle is cheaply built, there were not many studs, causing issues) so I could anchor the cabinets into something solid.

How it was done: Russ and I started with the corner cabinet and then worked our way out. We lifted the cabinets up and set them on the ledge we installed, which ensured the cabinets were level and easy to hold in place. One of us held the cabinets while the other screwed them into the wall.

Anecdotes: Russ gave up a ten-hour day with his family. He's a great friend. Anna and Vivi visited once to check on our progress. We had a craving for high-calorie lunch, leading to an impromptu trip to Wendy's for double Baconators. They were delicious and just what we needed. Luckily, neither one of us sustained heart damage... yet.
The new cabinets: We now have more storage space
because cabinets go all the way to the ceiling.
The new cabinets: The gap at the top is not finished yet.
It's great actually having a microwave.

Words of advice: Paint first! Any mess you make will be covered with a new floor, new molding, etc. If you hate painting as much as I do this makes it slightly more bearable!

Anecdotes: Michelle picked out the great blue color! The walls used to be white. When she first started to pick out colors for our house, we were painting a bedroom. She wanted to have nothing to do with the process. She claimed to not know how to pick. She hated the endless, infinite choices. She made several trips to the store. Now, she is a paint expert!
New paint: the deep blue adds a contrast to the white molding and white cabinets.
We are going to tile the backsplash under the cabinets and
hope to find some blue accent tile to tie the room together.
Words of advice: Be sure the door is level on all sides before securing it. Use spacers in the gaps. Also check that the door opens and closes appropriately.

Anecdotes: I envisioned that Michelle would be a good helper for this project. But we failed. We were unable to lift in the door together. She did make a valiant effort though. My sister, Brandy, came over and we were able to secure the door in place.

The old door.

 The new door.

Charlie enjoyed helping me take out the old door and put in the new one.

My dad came over to help install the flooring. He and I working together made a several-day project a one-day project. Between tag-teaming, planning, and all-around work ethic, we were able to put in one darn good looking floor.

Words of advice: Like everything, be sure to have a plan. If we didn't think through all the steps we might not have realized we had an issue until the end when it was too late and unfixable. When we measured once, we measured a second time knowing after a cut is complete there was no going back. Finally, laying floor of any kind is time-consuming.

How it was done:  Very carefully. But seriously, generally, laying new flooring is not technically difficult. But, because working with such a large area there are many parts to consider, we had to be diligent and dedicated until the entire job was complete. I set aside several days in case it took longer than anticipated.

Anecdotes: Charlie was a devoted helper on this project, following along with every step of the process until he was blocked off from entering the kitchen.

Step 1 - Lay the subfloor
We screwed down cement board to the existing plywood subfloor so that the ceramic tiles had a solid base to adhere to. We alternated the direction of the cement board so that our cuts were staggered. I do not have any pictures of this process.

Step 2 - Cut the tiles
Cutting ceramic tiles can be a difficult step because they can chip, crack, or break in the process. Dad was the master of this part of the project. You can use a diamond blade on a saw, a wet saw, or a tile cutter. Our friends Jeralee and Mike lent us a tile cutter that was great. We just scored the tile and then it broke along the line. For other more difficult cuts, Dad used a diamond saw blade.
Tile cutter. Investing in this tool is recommended!

Step 3 - Lay the tiles
Again, this is not difficult, just long and tedious. Thinset is used to adhere the tile to the cement board. Word of advice, buy the pre-mixed kind. It costs three times as much but saves a lot of extra work. Since I was doing this the low-budget way, I had to mix my own. It came in a powdered form, then I added water, and stirred. To get the right consistency, I sometimes had to add more mix or water. This takes forever! Once, mixed, we took a trowel to spread an even, thin layer of thinset onto the cement board. I set the first tile based upon our marking and measurements. Then I lightly tapped the top of the tile to make sure it was an even, secure fit. We worked in small sections because the thinset dries and adheres to the tile quickly and we did not want to (or were able to) pull them up. Dad and I had a system: one person would cut tiles (since this took more time and measuring) while the other worked on laying tile. Investing in a bag of spacers helps keep accurate gaps between tiles.

Using spacers while laying ceramic tile.

Step 4 - Grouting
After all the tiles were put down, I waited to make sure they set properly. This required staying off of them for at least 24 to 48 hours before continuing the final work on the floor. I waited a day.
Ceramic tiles setting without any grout.
I returned the bag of ready mix grout to the store after the horrible experience of trying to mix my own thinset and bought pre-mixed sanded grout. I'm glad I did. Grouting takes patience! Playing loud music while working makes the process much more enjoyable. A rubber float (or economy float) is necessary to work the grout into the crevices between the tiles.

To grout, I held the float at a 45-degree angle to fill the cracks. Then, holding the float at a 90-degree angle I smoothed it out. It's OK to get some grout on the tile, but I discovered the hard way it was better to be less messy. Again, it was best to work with small sections at a time.

Then, I cleaned up the excess grout with a sponge and bucket of water. This step was more painstaking than grouting. Here is how this should have worked:
  • Give the grout about 30 minutes to an hour to set before clean up.
  • Lightly move the wet sponge over the tile to bring up the excess grout. 
  • Rinse out the sponge in the bucket of water and repeat. 
  • Regularly dump the water and refill. 
But since I didn't clean up the grout as I went, I ran into serious trouble! I grouted the entire room and then went back to clean up later. It took forever because I had to scrub the excess grout off of the tiles. It took serious pressure and scraping to remove all of the grout. Michelle was awesome in helping with this step. If I ever grout again, I will stop to clean up a section before moving on to other parts of the room. I let the grout cure for about a week. 

Step 5 - Sealing the grout
Finally, the last step is sealing the grout. I purchased an applicator and ran it along the grout lines. Then I let the sealer sit for two or three hours before reapplying. It took several applications because the grout is porous. I could tell when it was sealed as the later applications took longer to dry.
Grout sealer and applicator.

After sustained effort, the finished project is definitely something we can enjoy. We broke in the new kitchen by hosting Michelle's parents and siblings over for food and the Nebraska game against UCLA. The game was disappointing. The kitchen was perfect.

During each step of the remodel, Charlie was the perfect helper, right next to me each step of the way. I kept telling him about how much he would like the updates. He was the final inspector. First, he crept into the room, looking at me from around the refrigerator.
Then, he did a quick walk around the room, testing how the texture of the new floor felt on the bottom of his feet.
Finally, he went over to his spot and drank from his water dish. All was right in the kitchen again. Charlie approved. 


  1. Excellent work, Todd! You have skills, my man.

  2. Wow -- nice work! If you want more practice . . .

  3. Looks great Todd! Hope things are going well for you. Take care:)

  4. Grammie Florence's china hutch looks so great and very special!

  5. Todd, I really like how you laid everything out right away by saying how you have been planning and saving materials for so long in order to do this project. Intimidation is probably my biggest obstacle on projects like this, and too often I read posts like this and think "That's great, but I'll never be able to do all that stuff!" But saying how you gathered materials over the course of a year, and writing about what worked and didn't work with each stage of the project, was awesome. And what a good-looking kitchen!