Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What's Wrong With This Picture?

For weeks I have been procrastinating on whether or not to rake the leaves that blanket my back yard. I have been busy with other projects (like finishing my checkerboard floor, taking down the screens and washing the windows one last time before winter, and cleaning the porch and barn—another pre-winter ritual.) Truth be told, I was hoping the ground would be covered with snow by now and I wouldn't have to deal with the problem until next spring. But this weekend, I gave in. Afterall, it's the first week of December and temperatures are still in the mid 50s. Clearly I've run out of excuses.

In my mind I always perceive raking leaves to be a zen-like discipline: one that allows you to commune with nature and, by focusing on a simple, repetitive activity, gain a peaceful, calming mind. I feel the same about ironing shirts—something that I have done weekly since my college days—and shoveling snow. But in reality, raking leaves (and shoveling snow) is a lot of work. (I'm still on the fence about ironing—even after all these years!) Unlike my neighbors who enlist their noisy, battery-charged leaf blowers, I have just two options for clearing leaves (...well, three if you count windy days): mowing them into mulch or partnering with an old-fashioned leaf rake. So, armed with a rake, I took to the backyard for some mindful communing with nature.

After an hour or so, I began to fade. I forgot how big the yard was and how steep the incline. And, even once the leaves were raked into rows and piles they still needed to be bagged and discarded—a chore unto itself. Adding insult to injury, I received a call from my sister Kathy midway who informed me that it was snowing in Houston. HOUSTON! Why am I still raking leaves in upstate New York in December? Where is our snow? Defeated, I finished up what I could and left half of the yard unfinished for another day—hopefully a distant day in spring.

Two days later my prayers were answered. The first snow of the season arrived and it was time to retire the leaf rake. Now where did I put that snow shovel?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Great Art for (so much) Less

I visited a friend several years ago and happened upon a gallery that was exhibiting old paint by number paintings. The walls were covered from floor to ceiling and the impact was so striking—and the site of the paintings such an emotional trigger from my youth—that I started to collect the paintings myself. At first, I would be happy just stumbling upon an unexpected discovery. Soon I began looking in earnest, focusing on landscape paintings and scouring flea markets, yard sales, and even Salvation Army and Goodwill stores whenever I travelled. One painting was no longer enough. I started to look for companion paintings (paintings that were originally packaged together with complementing imagery). Before long, I was bidding against other collectors on eBay; crestfallen when paintings I coveted were snatched up in the final seconds of bidding. It was clear, I had not only become a collector, but a paint-by-number addict.

But collecting is only part of the story. The bigger question is what do you do with the things you collect? I decided to create a gallery of my own in the stairwell of Trout House. (You may recall seeing the story in the pages of Country Living Magazine, but the photo shoot was by no means the end of the project.)

When I first mounted the paintings, I decided to use a small, nearly headless, brad nail to tack each corner (see right). I figured if I ever wanted to remove the paintings I could do so without damaging them. I also knew that a frame would conceal the pin-sized hole in the corners should I decide to re-use or resell them. But, after a couple months, the centers of the paintings started to bow. So now my worst fear was realized—I would need to take each painting down and find another solution for mounting. Because the nails had no heads, the only way to remove the paintings was to pull them away from the wall and have the nail go through the backing. I used a pliers to remove the nails afterwards.

Oh, did I mention that I changed the wall color after I hung the paintings the first time and, rather than remove them, painted around each one? I should have known that decision would come back to haunt me (see left). After I re-painted the walls, I tried a double-sided carpet tape to see if that would keep the paintings flat against the wall. But, even the combination of carpet tape and corner nails failed to keep the paintings flat against the wall after a couple months.

So, I removed them again and used a 3M Scotch heavy duty mounting tape that, if you can't find locally, can purchase on Amazon. Today, those paintings are secure. Of course, taking them down now will clearly destroy the paintings. I hope the future owners love the paintings as much as I do.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


I have owned this Harden chair for a good many years. It happens to be one of my favorites and has found a place at one time or another as a side chair in the living room, an accent chair in the bedroom and, on occasion, a rather stylish desk chair. I love the Queen Anne styling and have always found it to be one of the most comfortable seats in the house. But the time had come to give the chair a face-lift or, in this case, a chair-lift.

Although I've tackled minor upholstery before—like changing the seat cushions on a dining room chair—the cost of materials and the challenge of having a tight fit edged with brass nail heads, definitely required a professional. (Luckily, I have someone in a nearby town upstate who was able to do it for $80.) But, first I needed to refinish the wood arms and legs.

By tearing away the original upholstery, I was able to cover the exposed wood frame with a coat of primer and then two coats of the same color paint used on the room's trim. My friend and long-time colleague at Country Living—and arbiter of good taste—Robin Long Mayer, helped me choose a burlap-like (but not burlap-priced) upholstery material and velvet piping to coordinate the chair with the room's decor. And it was off to the upholsterer.

When the chair came back with it's lighter covering, I realized that the finish looked flat and lifeless (see left below). What it needed was a glaze, stain or toner that would enhance the carved details and give it a somewhat antiqued look. I turned to one of my favorite decorative paint sources—Caromal Colours. After taping plastic around the new upholstery, I applied Caromal Colours Toner with cheesecloth to the arms and legs and, after a couple of minutes, removed the excess. As you can see below (right), it provided just the right hint of color and definition.

The only steps left were to apply a coat of wax, buff well, and remove the tape and plastic. The final result—a new look, and oh so stylish lift!

Monday, October 26, 2009

There... in black and white!

A couple weeks ago, I decided to paint the concrete floor in my laundry room. Now, this was by no means a snap decision. The floor was installed with radiant heat two years ago and over the past couple months I vacilated over installing vinyl, stone, or porcelain tiles—all of which are compatible with a radiant heated subfloor. But in the end, I decided to take a simpler, more economical approach. I invested in two gallons of water-based Floor & Porch Paint from Ace Hardware (having them custom color a Canon Ball black) to create a basic black and white checkerboard painted finish.

Since the concrete was never sealed and in an area of the house that would only recieve moderate foot traffic, the only prep I needed to do (according to experts at Ace, Home Depot and Benjamin Moore) was clean thoroughly using a solution of water and ammonia and remove any raised surface irregularities—like drops of paint and drywall—with a scraper, sandpaper or hand-held rotary sander. If you were painting a previously sealed floor, a basement floor where moisture was an issue, or a garage floor where oil and chemical spills might be evident, you would have to consider additional steps like an acid wash to etch the concrete for better paint adherence or an alkyd or oil-based paint for better paint saturation and surface wear.

To create my pattern, I followed the advice of tile installers: finding the center point of the room and radiating the pattern outwards from that point. I was careful to see how the squares would butt to the baseboards as well. Once determined, I used a square and metal ruler to plot out a 16" x 16" grid pattern. To get a clean edge, I taped each square with painters tape. I gave each square three coats of paint, allowing sufficient dry time between coats, before removing the tape. The tricky part is lifting the tape without lifting some of the paint. If anyone has an alternate suggestion on how to get a clean line without applying tape, or a better tape choice, let me know. Although it took time, the floor looks better than I imagined it would. The test will be how well it stands up to foot traffic and cleaning. I'll let you know.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Combing—sort of!

This weekend I decided to refinish a desk/sideboard that I've had for a couple years. The table was downstairs during my renovation and the contractors decided to use it for a tool bench...adding to an already distressed look. I certainly could have stripped the finish and re-applied a coat of stain and wax. But, given the decorating plan for the room, I didn't really want another wood tone, particularly one so large. I also didn't want to just cover it with a coat of paint. The solution was to try my hand at combing.

For those of you who don't know, the paint technique of combing dates back to the early 19th century when artisans and craftsmen would decorate chests, cabinets, and cupboards with amazing comb marks revealing undercoat colors and adding depth to the design. If you have the opportunity to visit museums like Winterthur in Delaware or Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, or visit a top quality antiques show like the annual New Hampshire Antiques Dealers Show in Manchester, you will see some exquisite—and pricey—examples.

There are specialty combs sold at retail paint stores that offer a variety of options in terms of size and width of teeth. Unforutnately for me, the desk surface was uneven and I needed to find a tool that could be flexible enough to drag across slightly separated boards and uneven surfaces. A feathering comb for hair ended up being the tool of choice. A $2.95 purchase at my local CVS.

The process is simple. After priming the desk, I recoated it with a putty colored, semi-gloss, water-based paint. Once dry, I applied a flat paint in blue and, while still wet, dragged my comb through the finish. Since this is a hand art, perfection is not something you should aspire to. Personally, I like the wavy, uneven lines that decorate my desk. What do you think? By the way, I applied a coat of Liberon Neutral Bison Wax for protection and to give the surface some sheen.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Last summer I planted four hydrangea bushes. They were purchased and planted late in the season so I wasn’t even sure they would make it through the winter. But they did and this summer they are twice the size they were a year ago (as shown above). The problem is--no blooms and it is late August. As I look around the city and see the abundance of beautiful blossoms and already changing colors, I wonder what I'm doing wrong. I vaguely remember hearing that hydrangeas don't blossom the first year after planting (...or did I imagine hearing it to conceal my gardening shortcomings?). Regardless, I need to find out why my plants are not performing.

According to the Hydrangea Hydrangea website there could be three reasons for the lack of blooms:
1. The bushes were pruned too drastically last fall. Not the case since I failed to prune the bushes at all last year. Could that be the problem?
2. The plants leafed out early in the spring during a warm spell and then got caught in a late spring freeze. A possibility...but my neighbors plants are blooming.
3. The bush may not be right for my zone. Since I purchased the plants at my local Home Depot, I can't imagine this is the case.

If anyone has any advice, I’d love to hear it. For now I am left with hydrangea-envy and the amazing city blooms that I've photographed throughout the summer. Next year, these blooms better be mine!

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Dear Diary...it rained today! (See previous post for explanation.)

This weekend I needed to re-glaze an old window. I tackled a similar project once before and felt confident that I was up to the task. However, as is often the case with DIY, the project turned out to be more problematic than I anticipated!

First off, it appears that previous glazing repairs were made with either concrete or plastic/epoxy compound filler. As I worked the putty knife gently around the perimeter of the glass, the oldest glazing broke away freely (as it should) but the newer patches were more resistant. I applied increasing amounts of pressure only to prove a known fact: pressure and glass are not compatible. I watched the first pane crack and adopted a more gentle hand in working on the remaining panels. In the end, I had shattered each of the four panes. I had certainly achieved what I intended—clearing away the old glazing—but at the cost (less than $20) of having to replace four 8 x 10 panes of glass.

After a quick trip to the lumberyard, I was ready to install the new panes and re-apply glazing. Getting a good and consistent bead was challenging, but with a little trial and error, I was able to complete the project satisfactorily. This link from the Do-It-Yourself website will give you a good idea of what it takes to glaze windows. Of course, it looks easy when a professional glazer tackles the job.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

...and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden!

It seems appropriate to title this post with the lyrics from Joni Mitchell for two reasons:  It was a glorious, rain-free weekend made for gardening, and it was the 40th anniversary of Woodstock which took place in Bethel, NY, about twenty minutes from where I live.

I have owned my country home—that I christened Trout House—for four years and am convinced that, had I been keeping a diary, more entries than not would have begun...'Dear Diary, it rained today!'  But this summer has been unusually wet and cold, as anyone living in the northeast can attest. While I was convinced it was a result of changing weather patterns (you know…the vanishing glaciers…the rising ocean water temperatures…the vanishing bees, etc.), a Woodstock documentary filmed 40 years ago revealed that of the 26 days the show producers were in Bethel, 21 days saw rain.  So much for climate change! 

As for getting back to the garden, this weekend I was able to resume my project of removing a patch of ground cover (pacasandra?...I think not!) that has become weed-riddled and overrun.  I want to clear it away and plant grass so that I can extend the yard and keep it maintained with greater ease.  The ground cover was planted by the previous owners so it's had plenty of time to grow a dense network of underground roots.  I know that if I don’t remove every trace, it will resurface next summer with my newly planted grass.  So it was digging, separating, and digging some more to remove the culprit and make way for what I hope—by summer’s end—will be a patch of beautiful green lawn. Weather permitting, of course.