The ultimate before and after gallery

Alright folks, here it is.

Click on this link to see our before/after gallery.

There is only one more room to do, and of course its in progress.  Please take about 5-10 minutes of you time to check out the gallery.  It opens in a new window, and should be pretty obvious how to get from one picture to the next.

Admittedly, we look back and admire all the hard work, sweat and lack of sleep that went into this place.  Of course it could not have been done without help.  All of our friends contributed in one way or another, whether helping to hold drywall, generously letting us borrow tools for months on end, or just buying a beer and asking how things were going.  THANK YOU to everyone.  I have not been a part of all the work, click on the “This Old House” category to the right to see where I joined in, but Chelsea was definitely part of it all, and has been the brains behind the entire transformation.

I find it hard to pick which transformation is my favorite.  Probably the kitchen and then the yellow room.  Chelsea’s votes are for the curb appeal shot of the house (picture 1) the kitchen, and the main bathroom.  What are yours?  Please leave in the comments your favorite change or new room.

TOH: Landscaping projects II (flowers)

I mentioned a few posts ago that we had yet another landscaping project, and well that was a bit of a lie, we had a number of additional ideas to finish up on.  I won’t bore you with pictures of the fantastic three new woodpiles from the 20+ branches we cut down, or the demo, rebuilding and painting of the carport Chelsea managed to do singlehandedly.  Nope, the subjects of this post will be flowers.

Shown below are the two sides of the sidewalk that splits the front yard running toward the house.  Similar to the driveway, there was little delineation between the “flower beds” and the rest of the yard, as Chelsea had terrible luck getting anything to grow in there and it sort of filled in with grass and various weeds.  And I wish I had a picture of it, but there used to be these huge ugly tree/bushes that created quite the privacy screen.  If you look closely you can see stumps where they used to be.

My goal the past few weekends was to miraculously get those bushes to re-grow.  No such luck.  So instead, I used my brand new axe and trusty shovel to dig, chop and completely remove those stumps.  I said weekends for a reason: stump removal is really a job for heavy machinery and not science graduate students.  Those things probably took a year off my life.  Anyway, we replaced the stumps with pretty flowering rhodadendrons and filled the area in with more of that free mulch.  The results are better than we had hoped.

While I was busy screaming at the remnants of those bushes Chelsea had her own flower project: planters for the end of the driveway.  She designed, built and painted four nice sized planters to mark the entrances to the driveway.   AND the bonus part is they are functional.  Two of them have the address to the house, three have holes cut in the top big enough to hold cheap hanging planters, and the fourth doubles as a mailbox stand.

We have a lot more house-related updates to post on, but lab work, thesis writing and….well work on the house get in the way sometimes.  I’ll try to update soon.

TOH: Curb Appeal (Driveway and Trees)

Chelsea and I spent Saturday like we hope everyone else in Ithaca did, getting a sunburn on our winterized skin while spending some time outside.  In fact, we were so excited to enjoy the good weather and break a sweat outside that we woke up much earlier than we normally do on weekends to jump start the day.  Today’s task was to try and make the driveway look like a driveway.  Take a look what I mean:

If you look close enough you can see some sembelence of a gravel driveway there, but its really difficult to see where the driveway ends and the yard begins.  Part of that is because of the canopy from the trees we have a hard time growing grass, and part of that is because people used to park wherever in the driveway/yard.  We were hoping to clear that up.

Thanks to our friend Ed being so generous and letting us borrow his pickup truck for probably the 15th time, we were now proud owners of 40 eight foot long landscaping timbers.  We also bought 80 large (8 inch long) galvanized nails to secure those to the ground.  I think our results speak for themselves.

We now have a clear divide between the driveway and yard, though we haven’t entirely made up our minds on if we want it to be filled with a truckload of gravel.  On the top of this picture you can see the small little parking spot we allocated (small because we were mindful of the property line).  And here is the view looking the other way.

We even managed to allocate two more parking spots on the other side.  There is now parking for 4 in addition to a fully functional turnaround driveway.  If anyone knows a good (cheap) way to fill this in, please let us know.

Naturally dropping 8 foot timbers along the edge of the driveway isn’t that hard, so most of our energy today was spent working on what we definitely consider a cost-effective project, and another project that hopefully I’ll be able to post on tomorrow.  The first is cheap landscaping for the magnificent trees in the yard.  There are at least 4 really big trees right in the front yard, (you have read about them before here) and we wanted to try and complete the landscaping a little bit.

We finished off the day by gathering two jeepfulls(?) of FREE mulch courtesy of the City of Ithaca, and surrounding all the trees in the yard with piles of it.  Then to keep the piles honest, we dug rocks out of the stream in the backyard, carted them up to the front yard and then lined the mulch piles with them.  They look fantastic.  And the best part is, this particular weekend project didn’t cost us a dime.  More tomorrow (if my sunburn and ageing back permit it.)

cold storage

Although I’m sure I’ve said this at least 3 times now, but I’ll go ahead and say it again.  In one of our final steps in getting the house ready, we have done one of the last two major changes in the kitchen.  Today our new refrigerator arrived.  I know not very exciting to most of you, but I can tell you, a new appliance makes a world of difference, especially one that you use as often as a fridge.  One of the reasons for upgrading was that all the other appliances in the new kitchen are brand new, and the other is that the old fridge was pretty nasty, and had clearly seen better days.

We picked one out at Lowe’s, and talked the guy into free delivery and haul away of our old one and then just waited for the truck to show up.  Aside from the delivery guys calling to say they would be 2 hours ahead of the promised schedule (we do have to work and all), they showed up 15 minutes early and made quick work of the job.

We now have a brand spanking new fridge, and actually don’t have enough stuff to fill it with (yet).  They say that the kitchen is one of the make-or-break rooms of the house when selling, so this was a small price to pay for what will hopefully be a big deal.

A room for all seasons

This weekend Chelsea and I started on what we hope is the last major indoor project for the house.  The master bedroom used to be a daycare, and there is a small room just off it that served as an entrance separate from the front of the house.  This room was poorly finished and basically served as storage for our tools and such.  In an effort to maximize the square footage of the house, as well as utilize any “bonus” rooms we had (mud rooms, finished basements etc qualify) we decided that if the entire rest of the house got a makeover we couldn’t skip that last room.

Naturally this room again had wood paneling, but in this case it was faux wood with plastic trim.  We could have painted over the paneling had it been installed nicely and well-maintained but as you can see below it was not so nice.

We also had to do something with the floor, which was two linoleum remnants poorly fastened together and to the floor.

We took advantage of the warm weather this weekend and pulled down the paneling, ripped up the floor and basically have exposed studs (which were insulated properly, a pleasant surprise!).  Sounds like a blank canvas to us.  We hope to have it turned around in a couple weeks so I won’t post again until its done.


There are many forms of transitions in life, some good and some bad.  The transition from the winter to summer season (spring) is usually a welcomed sight.  The transition from childhood to adulthood (years 14-25 for me) – maybe not so much.  The rest of this post is dedicated to the transition in our house from one room to another.

As part of our final push to sell the house we have been putting the finishing touches on projects and parts of the house that for one reason or the other had been neglected.  One of those tasks was to put in the last few transitions from the kitchen.  Below is the threshold between the kitchen and a bathroom, with the before and after pictures back to back.

As I’m sure our friends David and Sam can attest, these small pieces of craftmanship are not as easy as cutting a flat piece of wood to size and slapping it in there.  This particulat piece had to bridge the area between two different floors.  What that means in a 160 year old house is neither surface was on the same plane, and actually each was falling away from the center at a different angle.  That made for some creative table saw cuts.

Next we hit the area between the front dining room and the kitchen.  Again no easy task as the floors are on levels about 1.5 inches apart.  This one might be the most dramatic because it was such an eyesore before.  Now I just have to get used to the new piece being there so I don’t trip on it.

This last example was more of a spontaneous decision.  I was already upstairs working on yet another project (more on that later this week) and I thought since we had just banged out two nice transitions downstairs why not spruce this one up a little bit.  The above picture shows the old nasty transition from what was one iteration of the upstairs, to what was obviously an addition.  If you look closely you can see the difference in the floor boards.  As always, this involved our trusty circular saw, but it now makes it much less obvious when you switch from one floor to the other.

Door Number 1

As usual, Chelsea and I spent the weekend on various house-related activities.  Saturday was warm and sunny so we took advantage and did plenty of work outside in the yard.  Saturday evening we were lucky to have our friend Dave drop in to town for the evening on his travels across the country.  Sunday we worked on yet another project inside (more on that Wed) watched some college hoops, and then put in a new front door.  That is all.

Not really.  We both get so excited to rip out and change whatever we are working on that very often we forget to take “before” pictures of all of our projects.  Here is an old photo showing what the steel door used to look like.

It didn’t really match the room, and Chelsea’s advisor Paul was nice enough to donate his old front door to the cause.  naturally it was much more difficult to install a new front door than we wanted.  While Chels changed over the locking hardware, I was in charge of routing out the edge of the door to the size of the hinges in order to sink them.  I also had to drill new holes in the frame for the knob and dead bolt to go, as well as sink that hardware.  Thankfully the door fit, and here is a picture of the new door in place with the old door placed next to it.

What I failed to mention is that the floor is not level, or uniform across.  In fact, we could never really open the previous door completely withouth scraping the floor, and there was definitely no room for a rug under there.

Our solution: cut the door.  We cut half an inch from the bottom of the door and now it flows smoothly over the rug as evidenced in this picture.  (side note – I definitely recommend having a sharp saw blade before trying to cut a solid oak door.)  If you look closely at the pattern you can see our new front door looks great, it really classes up that room.   Thanks Paul!

TOH: Curb Appeal

Every plant and animal in Ithaca has a bad case of spring fever, and Chelsea and I are no exception.  As part of our final push to get the house in condition to put it on the market (don’t worry, plenty more to do still) we thought we would make the most of a sunny and 50 degree weekend and get in some yardwork.  Saturday afternoon was spent breaking newly purchased leaf rakes (another topic maybe) and raking the entire yard.  We want to plant more grass seed, and it has to go in now before the canopy overhead blocks all the sun.

Sunday however, was spent doing much more manly tasks, such as cutting down tree branches.  Being biologists at heart, it is difficult for us to cut some of these trees, as some of them are magnificent.  We settled on the compromise of cutting some of the very low hanging branches, and the ones that obstruct the view from the road.  Our thought was that we would open up the driveway and front of the house a little more and make it more appealing to people driving up.  After all – first impressions make a big difference.  Again thanks to our friend Ryan, we had a chainsaw at our disposal and made quick work of the branches in question.

Above you can see some of the branches that came down, as well as the workhorse chainsaw.  We also had another ladder that I used to get to the higher points.

Here is a view from the top couple rungs of that ladder.  I like this picture because you get a good idea how high I had to go while operating that chainsaw (don’t worry we were very safe) and if you look close enough you can count about 8 of the fallen victims.

Again, as a biologist I couldn’t help but notice that the wounds on the tree where we had just made the cuts, became really wet and in all cases were just pouring out water.  I knew that trees had plenty of water running through them, but didn’t realize it would come out quite like this.

This final picture is just to illustrate the amount of water coming out of the trees.  Sometimes people cover the freshly exposed surface with tar or something similar, but I think we’ll just let the trees heal themselves.  They have been a live for a really long time, I’m sure they will manage.

All said and done we cut down at least 20 good sized branches in under 2 hours.  I have to say it does make a difference in the way the driveway and yard look.  Now we just need to find the energy to cut and move them all.  Maybe another nice spring weekend.

Stairway to Heaven

Theres a lady whos sure
All that glitters is gold
And shes buying a …….. whoops not what I meant to do.

This post is all about a stairway though, specifically those going upstairs in the house.  Again, going with the theme of trying to brighten and freshen the whole house, we thought it would be a good idea to spruce up the corridor leading to the upstairs, since that is what people will first see when the open the door to go up.  It used to look like this:

We first started this project by removing the worn carpet lining down the center.  The next task was to remove the gold plated kick plates on each step, and then finally the gray carpet.  The gray carpet was actually about 60 tiny carpet squares glued into place.  Those were fun to remove.

You can see here what we saw going up: not a pretty site.  Not only were we surrounded by wall to wall wood, the wooden stairs were in nasty condition.  Years of work, and layers of paint and adhesive have really done a number on those stairs – unfortunately making them beyond refinishing.

We decided that the best course of action was to rebuild/cover the stairs with new wood.  Carpet was too expensive and wouldn’t look quite right since basically the rest of the house is wood flooring.  Our solution was to buy two 4’x8′ sheets of maple wood and spend an afternoon cutting pieces to size.

Of course in an old house none of the stairs were the same size, but to the builders credit, most of them were within 1/8 of an inch.  We then spent the next two days finishing the wood with stain and polyeurethane.  Our new stairs were ready to be assembled.

And here is the final product.  I forgot to mention earlier that we also painted the wood paneling on the sides in order to brighten the space a little bit.  We are really happy the way they turned out, and think this will leave a much better impression on potential buyers as they head up to the newly refinished second level.

Here is the view looking down (too bad I don’t have a before of this one).  You can see the entire area is much more open looking and inviting.  And if you look closely you can even see what looks like brand new walls and trim on the upper part of the stairs/picture.  That will be the subject of a future post.  Lets hope very soon.

Ballin on a budget

I can’t exactly remember where I first heard this phrase, most likely a rap song while I was in high school.  I thought it was appropriate to the next few posts here, since Chelsea and I are trying to enjoy life and have luxury items, all while on a grad student stipend.  There are three main components to our  movie room: 1) projector, 2) media source (dvd/blu-ray player, cable box, computer etc) and 3) a screen.  Clearly the projector is the most expensive part of the movie tri-fecta, and the price of a DVD player is pretty low (if you don’t already have one) but I had no idea how much a screen would cost.  Turns out quite a bit.

After consulting with my high end electronics friend David, I learned it is definitely worth having a screen vs projecting onto a bare wall, and that there are many categories of screen.  Since I couldn’t justify spending more on my screen than the projector the high end ones were out, and the low end screens that seemed affordable I learned were “glorified bed sheets”.  More consultation and research ensued and I settled on the company DaLite as the best screen technology and quality for the money.  The problem is a fixed DaLite screen is still priced at about half of the projector, even with a dealer package discount.

This was troublesome because Chelsea and I don’t really plan to be here in Ithaca all that long, so I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on a screen that isn’t really all that portable, and I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on a screen in general.  So next we hit the web in search of some DIY solutions to our screen problem.  We found many options that seemed to be quite good, ranging from the backside of blackout curtains to photographers backdrop material.  Basically you use these alternative materials and create your own frame for them and presto cheap screen for you home theater.

Then somewhere in our searches I miraculously found what would be the best of both worlds.  A dealer that was willing to sell me the DaLite screen material by the square foot for almost nothing, and then I just have to create my own frame.  This is what I did, and here are the steps.

Once I knew the right dimensions for the screen I hit the basement and found some extra fir strips that were actually quite straight.  A quick trip to the fabric store for $5 piece of felt was next, and then all I had to do was wrap the boards (that were cut at 45 degrees on the ends) with the felt.

I then assembled the frame using these large metal L brackets on each of the four corners.

The next step was to stretch the DaLite material onto the frame and attach it.

My favorite bonus from ordering this material by the square foot is I could select to have DaLite put an optional 2” border on all sides, as well as a black backing for basically an extra 15 dollars.  This was worth it to me for two reasons, 1) it makes attaching the material to the frame much easier, and 2) if we ever need to move and can’t take the wooden frame with us, it will be really easy to just roll up the screen and put it in a poster tube, and we’ll still have black borders needed for contrast.

Here is the finished product hanging on the wall in the movie room.  I love the way it turned out.  Is it as good as a more expensive screen with manufacturers frame and tension?  No.  Do we get the best of both worlds here with quality screen material in a decent looking frame for 1/5 the price?  Yes.  And that is what ballin on a budget is all about.