Do-some-of-it-yourself backyard revamp

It’s been 55 days since I declared the start of Project Back Yard, Take 2. I had hoped to be sipping mojitos out there by June, and you know what? That is exactly what I did last night. So although it was a helluva lot of work and construction has been consuming all my leftover energy, I am calling this project a success. Here’s a look back at an 8-week, low budget revamp of this tiny rowhome “yard.”

Step 1: The fence

Nope nope nope.

This was the most important part of the job, and one I couldn’t pull off myself. I needed a good contractor. My initial round of googling resulted in a guy coming to my house and commenting that he “couldn’t leave his equipment unattended in this neighborhood,” but promising he’d email me a quote. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. He never answered his email or phone again.

Can I rant here for a sec? People. Port Richmond is not dangerous. It’s not trendy, that’s for damn sure, but there’s absolutely no reason I should be hearing “why do you live here??” from so many of my contractors. A) It’s flat-out unprofessional, and B) I’m paying you to install a fence, not review my life decisions. If you have concerns about my neighbors who work as plumbers and coach little league, do us all a favor and keep them to yourself.

I eventually found my contractors on Thumbtack, a site where you post the work you need done and receive bids on the job. I only received one bid, so I can’t vouch for the site being a solution for every situation, but my guys came out next-day and had the fence up within a week.

They made me two cute little gates: one to hide the breezeway where my drain, trashcan and gardening equipment live, and they moved this one — the main one — away from the ideal planting locations. They also rebuilt my stairs for free.

Cost: $1,300

Step 2: Cement

Step 2 was grueling. My existing concrete was level enough, but old and cracked and in all-around rough shape. It quickly became obvious that a patch job wasn’t going to cut it. So I decided to pour new cement over the existing slab.

Did I know what I was doing? Nope. Do I know that this won’t eventually crack again? NOPE. It probably will. But this solution had two clear advantages for the time being: it was inexpensive, and it was DIYable. I went one square at a time, recreating the divisions in the original slab by bounding each square with foam strips until the concrete had cured a bit. Then I rounded any rough edges with a sureform.

A few weeks later, everything was dry enough to give it several coats of concrete stain.

Cost: $165; lots of calories

Step 3: Planting

My original plan was to figure out a way to DIY a big planter box so I’d have a home for some perennials. And as luck would have it, the fence guys left a section of unused fencing that was just screaming for repurposing.


The process was super easy. I basically removed a few planks, sawed the rest of the sucker in half, trimmed off the ends at their cross braces, and used the free planks to build the sides. The boyfriend was here for plating day, so he assisted with installing a false bottom and lining the box with plastic sheeting. Cost: free. Although I did make us dinner.

I wanted my planting choices to be economical: stuff I’d use, stuff that was inexpensive, and stuff that will hopefully come back next year. In the sunniest corner we planted blackberry vines, which should spread out nicely over the trellis we installed.

Also in the box: sage. It’s already attracting butterflies and bees.

The mint is from my father’s garden. The oregano was one of the only things to re-seed itself in my previously-neglected yard.

I wanted a buddleia, too. My mother always had one when we were kids, and I had one little section of trellis left to offer it some support as it grows in.

This corner is a bit of a catchall for whatever else was donated to the back yard makeover effort. The baby lillies are leftover bulbs from my father, again, and the sedum are cuttings from his garden as well.

The succulent is a rescue from my office. I added tiny deer vertebrae because, you know. Why not?

Cost: $145

And there we have it!

After. Panoramas don’t make straight lines.

Total cost: $1,610. Definitely worth it for a whole new usable space; it may be small, but there’s room enough for yoga and reading and dinners outside. I didn’t realize how much I missed having a little privacy back there until the fence went up. No offense, fellow Port Richmonders.

Quick DIY end table

The day before New Year’s Eve I had just finished up the massive baseboard project and I was too pooped to do much, but I poured a Manhattan and fell into rearranging the craft/sewing room. Furniture was moved. Wacky collections of objects were rearranged.

(From Instagram: weeds from Port Richmond railroad land, peacock feathers from my last job, a container of spare buttons, an empty bottle of port from my only trip to California. These are the things I save.)

Sitting in the room was this piece; what I assume is a plant stand gifted to me by my sister, champion houseplant cultivator, as a housewarming present.

I really liked the lines of it, but I never knew quite how to use it. My house doesn’t get enough light to support plant life in anything but a window. So it had been hanging out unused in the craft room for, errr, five years, waiting for inspiration (and Manhattans) to strike. Finally, they did.

Please excuse my terrifying basement.

From a bit of leftover shelving I cut out a circle to match the diameter of the plant stand. After some sanding and stain…

Instant end table. It’s just the right size for the little corner of the room occupied by my old butterfly chair.

The wardrobe and chair have traded places, which I think makes the room look a little lighter when you first walk in.

The hodgepodge of furniture I own really is insane. Especially in this room, which became a sort of catch-all for things I wanted to save but didn’t know where to put. But I think it kinda works. An area rug would be nice, but meh. I’ll probably get to that in 2020.

Oil wipe Lauren circa 2003 is judging you.

The last time you’ll hear about baseboards

I remember why I put the baseboard project off for so long: baseboards SUCCCKKKKKKK.

The picture above gives you some idea of what I was working with. The living room (left side) had been carpeted straight to the walls–the drywall here was nice and clean, relatively speaking–but the dining room had once sported a few layers of laminate and baseboards installed on top of that, which left some rough-looking walls where it was all ripped out.

And the doorway was a freakshow: here, the original living room baseboards poked out from behind the drywall installed over them. The homeowners before me just covered that mess up with a weird section of purple wall carpet. You know, WALL CARPET. Pretty sure wall carpet is a thing people have in their homes. Yes?

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Every woman should own power tools, I tell you.

I’m exhausted, so I’m going to type less and photo-montage more. In progress, from Instagram:

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It was a slow, tedious job. The house is 93 years old and as you would expect, the floor has settled in its own unique way. This made boards rest at slight angles and caused them to come together strangely at corners. I just did the best I could and kept the wood putty nearby. In my limited experience, that’s the attitude you have to maintain when dealing with old houses.

I used up seven 12′ MDF boards (no real pine here, sorry–I am cheap) and chopped them to size with my favorite tool, the miter saw. I moved around the house in circles, installing the longest wall first and then the next-longest wall I could with the remnants of the last board I had used. This conserved materials in case I miscut and had to do a section over (which luckily, I didn’t. Um. This time, anyway). Total cost was $158.

And now for the payoff:

(Twitter pillow in the last shot courtesy of world-traveler @leek1729. Merci!)

There you have it! It was 4 days of straight-up grief, but I am so happy with the way it polishes the place up. I’d say I should have done it years ago, but I spent all of my previous 4-day vacations on earlier house projects. These things take time, I guess. That’s okay. Right, Lauren? It’s OKAY.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m taking these caulkpants off. They’re more caulk than pants at this point anyway.



Those of you who have followed this blog for a while (all three of you) may know that baseboards are kind of a recurring theme. Or, more accurately, the lack of baseboards. A quick summary:

Well, we don’t yet have baseboards or rugs, and window treatments are something of a dream. But now I have confidence that we’ll get there. Maybe next year, even.
July 2009

Yes, I know, I still have no baseboards. It’s been — what? — a year? I should really tackle that next.
March 2010

I could fix most of this situation with baseboards, if I ever get around to baseboards.
August 2010

(No, I still don’t have baseboards. Shhhh.)
May 2011

I clearly still need baseboards, though. Just how many yearly wrap-up posts will you have to suffer through before I can show you pictures of baseboards? Stay tuned.
July 2011

Work, little horseshoe! Win mama the money she needs to finish those baseboards already!
November 2011

Apparently after 2011 I decided that my ongoing unwillingness to tackle the baseboard project was probably no longer blog-worthy and I shut up about it.

But guess what.

They’re HERE.

They’re not installed yet, of course. They’re not painted yet either. But they are in my living room and now I really have no excuse.

Baseboards by 2014, guys. Four years late is better than never.

Blueprint frame

Last week Anna of THE house blog Door Sixteen blogged about this great idea for dealing with posters that are just too big to frame: binder clips and simple strips of pine wood.

And while I don’t have any wall-sized pictures of Morrissey to frame*, I do have a giant blueprint!

I’ve talked about this thing before, but for the unfamiliar it’s drawing of the Fisher Fine Art Library, which is an awesome Frank Furness building on Penn’s campus. This is not a Frank Furness drawing. It was yanked out of the trash years ago by an old boss of mine when the architects who shared office space near us vacated. I think my boss, too, was flummoxed by the framing question — the blueprint is 45″ wide and in pretty lousy condition, so Anna’s quote of $1000+ to have a professional tackle a mounting and framing project is probably similar to what my boss would have faced.

So she didn’t mind passing it along to me. Hooray!

I’ve had it hanging with some bulldog clips for years, but the addition of the wood strips helps make this cheap display solution look more polished. And for this piece, which was probably stored rolled-up for a good long while, it also helps keep the edges for curling.

You can find your wood (hush) in the molding section of your local hardware store. I got two 7′ sections of pine for about $12, and I have enough left over to “frame” the cocktail poster if I feel like it.


While I was puttering around in the craft room today, I also threw Frida into a frame:

Things are really starting to look less like a pile of collected randomness and more like a home around here, I do declare.


*Honestly, my tolerance for Morrissey’s voice is rather low. I know. I know. I’m a bad person. The Smiths are amazing. But you know how occasionally he does that thing where he just oscillates between two notes, for, like, impossibly long periods of time and it evokes in you this deep, powerful anger and suddenly you’re screaming at the radio JUST GET TO ANOTHER NOTE ANY OTHER NOTE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY I BEG YOU PLEASE? Yeah.

Back in Black

My brain is back online (cue screeching dial-up modem sound), so here are a few little house updates that I’ve been meaning to share.

The only real project I tackled during my week off, besides scrubbing every floor on my hands and knees (BONA!), was to finish painting this bathroom cabinet. I had previously painted just the doors black and left the rest of it primer — I still haven’t dealt with the walls in this room and I don’t know what color they’ll be, so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep going — but eventually I got tired of living with black-and-white-striped Tim Burtonesque bathroom storage.

I was a little worried that once the whole thing was black it would make the room look smaller, but thankfully it doesn’t. You know what did? The room’s original, overwhelmingly wooden state. FLASHBACK!

Don’t you just want to burn it all for warmth?

Now that section looks more like this:

So with the completion of the little cabinet, all the wood furniture matches. Which is more than we can say for any of the metal fixtures. But hey.

I now have well-organized bottles of nasal spray and contact lens solution. And I need to properly paste down that accent paper. Or nix it. Or design my own. Not sure. Moving on!

I’ve been looking for an inexpensive cocktail ring for a while now, and was gifted the green labrodite one below from Priscilla and Vi’s Etsy shop. It’s just the size I wanted: bold, but just shy of ridiculous.

Up until this point my few rings and bracelets had been layered precariously on necklace hooks, but it was time to admit that I needed a better storage solution. This little Ikea dish does the trick nicely.

And now for the dining room, where, after 4.5 years of home ownership, THERE IS NOW A RUG.

I was so excited about this improvement that, at one of the season’s many social gatherings, I caught myself earnestly telling the person next to me that it really… tied… the room… together. Yeah.

It’s sisal and therefore not what you would call soft, but it was inexpensive and it does its job of preventing that horrible noise caused by chair legs scraping across a wood floor.

Elsewhere in the room are a few other gifts:

A nice Scotch (thanks, Dad!) and giant leftover bottle of Burgundy. We do both high and low class here at the ‘row. I have not partaken of either, however, as I am debating the merits of Drynuary. Perhaps I’ll try a modified version that allows for the occasional date and work happy hour? Either way I think I’ll save opening the Scotch until we hit the long, cold nights of February. And beyond.


And then there’s this. No explanation, really. I had the bow lying around and you know, it just happened.

(I’m not sorry.)

Project: Paper Cutting

I’ve been doing a lot of graphic design work lately, both freelance and as coursework. But once in a while I still manage to steal some time for a personal project. I felt this one was worthy of a quick share.

When the writer David Rakoff passed away last month (causing me to twitter-curse cancer for the zillionth time), I came across this beautiful tumblr of all the gifts he’d given his close friends on special occasions — birthdays, bar and bat mitzvahs, etc. Among the images I found some stunning paper cuttings, usually featuring drawings of koi framed with elegant hand lettering, presented to parents upon the births of their children. I thought it was such a sweet commemorative gesture, I couldn’t wait to inflict it on my own friends.

And wouldn’t you know it, I happened to have a pregnant friend! The first soon-to-be-mom of my childhood crew! And her baby shower was fast approaching!

Not knowing the kiddo’s name or birth date, I opted to do a test run of the paper cutting idea and present my friend with a mini coupon done in the style I’d use for the real deal. I mocked up a basic design digitally and then transferred the sketch to — wait, I don’t have any black paper lying around the house somewhere? Really? Anywhere? No?


Okay, fine. How about this:

DIY crisis averted.

I also thought this would be a fun project to time lapse, so I propped my iPhone up with a stand made of clay and got to work:

[flickr video=7976498218 secret=b9e2466c3f w=640 h=360]

Yeah. Oops. Clay = malleable.

But while I totally botched the video, I managed not to destroy the thing that mattered:

I think the key to this technique is to be very, very precise about your pencil lines. For example, although I outlined each letter and design element distinctly, before I started cutting (read: ruining everything) I went back in with an eraser and clearly indicated the places where objects connected. I think this helped me avoid errant (and potentially disastrous) cuts. That and taking frequent breaks for hand cramping. And also talking to myself. I’m sure my neighbors find the girl on the other side of the wall who verbally admonishes herself not to screw this up charming, right?

Ta-da! One hand-cut coupon, and also one totally freehand giraffe onesie.

…do people come that small? Seriously?


I’ve got some things to learn about babies. Can’t wait to meet your little one, M & D!

Be your own plumber

One day last week I was minding my own business, washing my dishes, when I grabbed my kitchen faucet to turn it to the left and this happened:

Except it didn’t look like that, exactly, because the water was on. Unencumbered by the part of the facet that controls the flow, I suddenly had a firehose in my kitchen. It drenched me. And my dinner. And the wall behind my head.

Not knowing exactly how to install a new faucet myself, I let this project go for about a week, during which time I repeatedly forgot that the damn thing was broken and re-drenched myself. I did it before bed. I did it before work. I did it before a date.

Clearly I needed to Just Fix It Already. Expecting the worst, I picked up a new fixture from Lowes and went to work.

It was a dirty job, yes, but not as bad as I had feared. The one tricky part was that of the two bolts holding the last faucet to the sink, one had completely corroded and couldn’t be turned. I struggled with it for about 20 minutes, hopelessly whacking at it with a hammer, before I remembered that I owned the bad boy pictured above. I snuck that blade right under the faceplate and up against the offending bolt, and the sink came loose in 30 seconds. BAM. Power tools are the best. Every lady should own a bunch.

From there on in the faucet swap was smooth as can be. I installed the new bolts, connected the hot and cold lines (the right way this time; my last faucet was connected backwards), hooked up the wand attachment, and we were golden.

The project also gave me the inspiration to take care of one of the few really cluttered areas left in the house: the storage under the sink:

Cringe. How about this instead:

That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

Dress hook

Sometimes the urge to work on the house comes at an odd moment. Like yesterday, when I decided to tackle this little project because the “quick and easy” sewing I had intended to do was swiftly transforming me into Seamstress Hulk. POLYESTER FRAYS. LAUREN SMASH.


Assuming I don’t destroy the sewing and crafts room in the near future, I figured it might be worth adding one key thing: a place to hang the clothes I work on/fight with. I needed a dress hook. And since I didn’t particularly want to head out to Anthropologie to spend $12 on one, I turned to my own basement. There I dug up a pile of these brasstastic coat hooks that came with the house.

I save evvvvverything.

The finish on these wasn’t really my thing — I wanted boudoir and I was getting Home Depot — but I have faith in the powers of spraypaint. I thought a good coat of glossy black might class things up a little.

That’s a bit less generic, right?

6:30am summer light in this room is just beautiful. It’s too bad every time I see it I’m in the process of darting off to the office.

Anyway, the hook took about two hours to locate, paint and install. Total cost to me: $0. Odd of success: high. A quick little improvement like this one is sometimes exactly what you need to stabilize your blood pressure.

Make it work

For a long time after last year’s bedroom renovation — far longer than I care to admit — this was the general state of affairs in my home office.

Part storage area, part shamefully neglected mess. The kind of room I closed the door on whenever I was expecting company.

A few months ago, out of a desire to sit down at the computer and actually get some work done, I attempted to make it usable again. But it certainly wasn’t pretty:

The office was the only room in the house that wasn’t a completely obnoxious color when I bought it, so it was the only room that I had not felt the need to immediately attack with an arsenal of brushes and rollers. Instead I tolerated four years of this wimpy pale blue semigloss stuff. But it was time for a change. And there were other minor details that needed sorting out, of course:

Yeah. This house is the ultimate “just drill a hole straight through the wall, whatever!” house.

Bam! Let me fix that for you! (Let me mostly fix that for you, because I sure as hell don’t want to go fishing the coax through the wall to a more convenient place, but whatever, good enough.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Over Memorial Day weekend I tackled this, the last untackled room, and here are the results:

The main project on my office to-do list was the bookshelf. I had been using a shelving system from Ikea that I hacked to fit in this alcove and it worked okay… but just okay. I knew proper custom shelves would maximize my storage space. So out came the miter saw. I love how I can tuck my paper shredder away, now.

Letterpress prints by my typography classmates and myself, with lots of help from Marianne at Huldra Press.

I got brave and installed this funky light fixture myself, replacing your standard Home Depot nipple light. I also installed a dimmer switch. And I’m proud of all that, really, except that these bulbs are not dimable.

My new lighting choice may be a little underpowered for the space, quite honestly. I’ll live with it for a while and see how it goes, but I have a feeling my electrical tape and wire strippers will come out again at some point. For the moment I’m just glad that I’ve learned to do simple jobs like this without setting anything on fire. Thanks, Dad!

And my workspace. (Yes, I have a PC. No, I don’t want to hear it.) The paint color is Behr’s Puddle, which is maybe a touch darker than what I was aiming for? But it’s growing on me. It’s very subtly purple gray.

The poster, The Pictoral Map and Walking Guide to Philadelphia, is by New York Times designer Bill Marsh.

Elsewhere in the room I did a lot of cord wrangling, art placing and lighting improvements — little things that help immensely when you’re trying to make a space feel homey. On the radiator cover is one of my most interesting possessions: a scan of Constantin Brancusi’s college roster from 1898. Brancusi has always been my favorite sculptor, and when I mentioned this to a woman who worked at the college he attended in Romania, she surprised me by emailing me this record from their archives. I kept it on my desk at my last job. I should really frame it up fancier, because holy cow, Brancusi.

As for the discarded Ikea bookshelves:

I hate to chuck something that I’ve put time and effort into, so I was super pleased when I set my shelves in the craft room just to get them out of the way and ended up really liking them there. I removed the door to this bedroom a long time ago to let the window light filter through the second story, but it had the unfortunate side effect of putting what was a mostly blank wall on display to anyone passing through. Now the bookshelf creates a great focal point.

Also, a girl needs somewhere to display her giant blackbear skull, right?