Friday 17 April 2009

Here's What Has Kept Me Busy These Past Few Months...

When I was a kid, my attitude was rotten, my work ethics were rotten and I had the rotten school marks to prove it. Somewhere along the way things changed for me. From that rotten little kid whose idea of reading was to look at the pictures in hot rod magazines, I now spend 75% of my waking hours studying everything I can on every subject imaginable; from architecture to zoology, and given that my so-called part-time job is that of a college instructor, I spend the rest of my time teaching.

So what does this confession have to do with woodworking? Everything.

This post is about the rebuilding of our kitchen. When I first started to consider this project I made the commitment that I would do it with hand tools. I felt that fabricating on this scale would advance my hand tool skills a thousand fold and take years off of my learning curve. Staying consistent with the rest of my life, I’d like to share what I learned with those of you that are considering doing a similar project…

Buy a damned table saw!

There was nothing major here. It was more to give the kitchen a face-lift, rather than reinvent the wheel. We kept the costs down mainly because we do not have any preconceived notions as to how long we are going to live here. I like the place well enough, I just hate the location; half way between living central and living in the country. Too far away from downtown for quick and easy commutes, but too much urbanization be worth the aggravation of commuting.

The place is a condominium built in the late 70’s when land and materials were cheap and labour was far less than today's standards. Because of that, by large urban-center standards, it is a huge three bedroom, two bathroom box. As is usual with these types of places, the kitchen is far too small, the fixtures far to cheap and the design far too ugly. Half the ceiling in the kitchen was covered with plastic panels in a cheap representation of those “Florida ceilings” that were so popular back in the late 70’s. The original floor had been replaced with the ugliest brown speckled terra cotta tiles ever made.

When my shor…er...petite wife started to constantly complain that the upper cabinets were too high, I started to look at what we could do.

I set out to:

  • Lower the uppers a few inches, the amount lowered determined by the coffee maker
  • Replace the junk original doors with 3/4” particleboard
  • Reduce the space the original installment left for the fridge and stove
  • Add a 16” upper and lower to the right end of the wall
  • Replace the box above the fridge with a lower one, mounting it flush with the face of the fridge
  • Add a divider between the fridge and cabinets to enclose it
  • Reconfigure the original bulkhead to follow the new cabinet configuration
  • To cover the fact that I was building this with the cheapest of materials, finish the new and existing with a better than average finish
  • Rewire and add new lighting
  • Replace existing floor

Here is what I started with. Actually, I had already lowered this side, added the lights, crown molding and took a door off when my son reminded me that I hadn’t taken a before picture…

Here is what it looks like now…

Because I was using 3/4" particleboard for the slab doors (pre-primed birch ply for the boxes), I wanted to give it a better than usual finish, one that would replicate the old milk paint used until it became known lead would kill you. To get this I gave everything one coat of regular primer, sanded, then two coats of high-build primer. This is great stuff as it expands as it dries and makes it easy to get a smooth, flat surface. I then sanded that to death, then laid on three coats of the green oil paint, giving it sands in between each coat with 220 grit. After that I laid on three more coats of satin finish varathane, again sanding between each coat, this time with 320 grit. I still have one more coat of varathane to put on, but I going to give everything a month or so to cure completely before going at it again. After that last coat is hardened, I'll rub everything down with steel wool and give it all a coat of wax. I did this to one end piece and the finish is as smooth as glass, but has a very unique sheen to it, and does replicate that old milk paint of yore.

In this shot, the upper cabinet over the fridge has been replaced with one that is consistent in height with the lowered originals and brought forward. A divider was installed to enclose the fridge and a new upper and lower cabinet was added to the end...

This is the new upper and lower cabinets, made to replicate the design of the original boxes. By reducing the space for the stove and fridge I was able to squeeze more space out of the wall to allow for these new 16" units. I built the base with two drawers only for pots and pans mounted on full extension, self-closing sliders. They work great and are very cool. I'm still opening and closing the drawers just to watch them close that last two inches on their own. Given the location of this base, I thought it would be ideal to have a butcher block top on it so I made one out of maple and beech...

The biggest hassle was deciding what to do with the space left between the tops of the upper cabinets and the bulkheads. It was too narrow to be of any use and too much of a hassle to enclose, besides, if the next owner's wife is, dare I say, of a normal height, they will probably want to put them higher again. All I did was added a filler piece to the top edge of each box and applied crown molding along them. The filler gave me a larger gluing surface and brought the molding out so it was flush with the faces of the doors. The molding is actually chair rail as I thought the crown molding would be too much for this little kitchen and would attract too much attention to the space. Behind the molding I installed rope lights all the way along to use as night lights. Here is what I am greeted with when I fridge-dive at midnight...

The biggest hassle was the ceiling. First, all the plastic panels, track and florescent lights had to be removed, along with their accompanying junction boxes and conduit pipe. The ceiling was popcorned over the concrete, so that had to be scrapped off and the whole thing skimmed with plaster to fill the holes and level it out. I then had to add to the bulkhead on the right, so the new cabinets looked like they belonged, and bring the bulkhead out over the fridge, so that reconfigure would look acceptable. For some reason there isn't an exhaust fan in this kitchen, even though there is a through-wall vent for the dryer in a laundry closet at the far end of the kitchen. Because of this, I plan to install a small ceiling fan in the center of the recessed ceiling but I'll have to install some fake, white ceiling beams to run the wiring in first. My good friend Eric handled the all the rewiring for me and while he was at it, installed the wiring for the fan, ending it at one of the new pot lights to wait for this further addition. So the ceiling now looks like this...

Once everything was in, installed and painted, I replaced the floor. Removing the old terra cotta tile wasn't a problem as whoever installed it removed the old linoleum tile, but didn't scrap and clean the old glue off. As a result, the thinset used to hold the terra cotta didn't stick at all and when I went to lift one, a whole section of ten to twenty tiles were lifted together, the grout between them being stronger than the adhesive that was supposed to  hold them to the floor. Believe me, the work involved removing the tiles was a whole lot less then hauling the lot of them down 26 floors to the garbage bin.

Because I am surrounded by concrete, the floor being the same as the ceiling, I had no choice but to go with "engineered flooring". Isn't that just a fancy hustle for fake wood? I wasn't too happy with the look of it in the store as to me, it looked like exactly what it was - fake flooring. Once I got it down, though, I warmed to it, and having lived with true hardwood floors in the past, I was surprised to discover how easy the fake job is to keep clean. The entire floor was fitted using a hand saw and keyhole saw with nothing plugged in for the entire day. To impart with a little bit more wisdom; that crap can take the edge off a saw in two minutes flat. I have had to add $120.00 to the price of the new floor as that is what it has cost me to send my vintage 20" Disston panel saw back to Philadelphia so woodnut4 can do his magic and re-sharpen it. I can't find anyone here in Toronto who does hand sharpening. Anyway, here's the floor...

So there you have it. There are still the few little jobs I have to do to completely finish this room, along with making that corner computer cabinet that I have been dreaming of these past few months. I do not think that I gained any greater knowledge or experience building all of this with hand tools except for coming to the understanding that I have a lot more respect for an old hand saw than I do for a fifty buck tablesaw blade. If we do decide to stay here I'll probably rip the whole lot out and start from scratch with a more elaborate and better built set of cabinets but for now, and in case of resale, these will do just fine. If I do go at them again, however, I can assure you the only hand tool I will be using is the push stick to shove the smaller pieces through a table saw. It took five sheets of particleboard and plywood, all 3/4", to make this stuff. Cutting all of that by hand was a huge pain in the.........arm. I will admit that particleboard does cut cleanly. Getting clean smooth edges on all the doors only took a few strokes with some 120 grit sandpaper and once painted, you can't find a saw mark anywhere. The only real bonus to building it all with hand tools is that I was able to pre-cut everything in the foyer of the apartment as the dust factor wasn't anywhere near what it would be with power tools. The compensation for the extra man-power involved was that I didn't have any travel time back and forth to the shop, which meant that I could fit the job into my schedule a whole lot easier.

If I had the time and didn't have a wife complaining about the existing kitchen every five minutes, it would have been nice to build the whole thing in real wood with frame and panel doors. Even if that were the case, I wouldn't commit myself so rigidly to hand tools again, not for a job this size. There is just way too much cutting.

I'm now taking a sabbatical from larger scaled projects for the next month and returned last week to working on my tool cabinet. I'll post some of what I have completed on that soon.



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