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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Return of the Stencil

You didn't think I went through all that trouble to make my DIY stencil just to do one project, did you? Heck no. Those things are reusable for a reason! So here was my next project: a wall-mounted coat rack for the hallway.

We needed someplace other than our bed to put guests' purses and coats (as well as our own when feeling lazy) and our little hallway has been woefully bare since...The Zoo Incident.

Let me back up to October 2015. The scene? Our wedding reception. We had a wide-matted picture frame and some metallic Sharpies on a side table for guests to sign their well wishes. It was an idea I'd poached from a friend and the end result was both beautiful and meaningful. We planned to put our favorite photo from the wedding in it and hang it in the hallway.

David's father reads the well-wishes left by friends and family.
Zoo, bringer of destruction
Fast forward to November, when we agreed to foster this little guy who had showed up in our yard one day. We named him Zoo. At roughly 3 months old, he needed to be potty-trained and we watched him like a hawk. Or so I thought. Turns out he had been sneaking off to pee under our guest bed. Which is where I had stored our wedding frame until we could choose and print our favorite photo. Needless to say the wedding frame was ruined and since that time I haven't had the heart to think about framing wedding pictures. As such, our hallway has remained naked.

In a house of roughly 900 square feet, however, no space can go un-utilized for long. We needed a coat rack and the hallway was the obvious place to put it. I thought about buying one, but making one sounded way more fun.

We had some spare bits of wood left over from building the addition to my garden. David makes fun of me for hanging on to wood scraps but it's a trait I inherited from my father and I really enjoy coming up with creative ways to use them. I chose one of these scraps, sanded it smooth, and stained it with a blend of mahogany and ebony stains to bring out the grain. I then applied my stencil using the same terra cotta and ochre paints I'd used on the armoire. When it dried I applied a low gloss urethane which deepened the stencil colors and gave the paint a slight translucence.


When I was choosing the knobs for the armoire I had ordered four different styles to see what I liked best. I picked one style for the armoire but this left me with three other knobs of different shapes but in the same coppery-bronze color. Never one to let something go to waste, I used these for the pegs on my coat rack. Ta da!! Not a bad afternoon's work, I'd say.


The hallway clearly still needs work, but at least it's a start! To me unique, handmade pieces like this are what give a home real heart. Sure, I would have preferred to showcase a wedding photo surrounded by messages of love and well-wishes from our most beloved friends and family, but on the upside we had the satisfaction of finding a loving forever home for a puppy in need. Plus, I got to prove to David (once again) the value of my scrap wood collection. If you can't hang the thing you love, at least love the thing you hang.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

That Time I Took DIY Too Far

In a fit of organizational pique this Spring I decided our home needed more storage space. Our one non-bedroom closet -- located between the kitchen and mudroom -- was crammed with art supplies, pet food, tools, gardening equipment, cleaning supplies, Christmas decorations, camping equipment, sports equipment, and storage for our recycling. I hated that closet.

I decided adding an armoire to the mudroom was the way to go. Armoires are extremely versatile and can be used in multiple rooms for a variety of purposes, which fits well with our propensity for moving. For a few weeks I scoured Craigslist but almost everything listed was sized for a Texas McMansion. In addition armoires have apparently become popular as entertainment centers, so many had random cutouts in the back wall for power cords and wiring. This really didn't fit my needs.

In an antique mall down the street I found an armoire that was perfect. The chalkboard look wasn't for me but it had the vintage charm and sturdy construction I wanted as well as the storage space I needed. Plus, I'd been itching to try furniture stenciling and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

A diamond in the rough!
I trotted off to my local craft store to purchase a stencil and completely struck out. I wanted a geometric tribal vibe but everything was either French or floral. I did find a few styles online, but this approach had two drawbacks: a.) I was impatient to get started and b.) the ones I really liked were expensive and I'd blown my budget on the armoire.

"I'll make my own stencil!" I declared. I bought a pack of plastic sheets designed for stencil making and headed home feeling ambitious.

I should mention here that I define myself as "handy" and "creative" rather than "crafty" or "artistic." I don't own cool crafting supplies like stencil-cutting devices. What I had was a box cutter. After studying a few different designs online I drew a basic tribal pattern onto the plastic sheeting and prepped a new blade in my box cutter. 

My half stencil
I understand now why pre-made stencils can be so expensive, and why proper materials make success so much easier. After a few hours, much swearing, and two bleeding fingers I had cut out exactly half of the stencil. I didn't think I'd survive cutting out the other side so I just cut the rest off and planned to flip my half-stencil as needed. The triangles were all uneven, but since I was going for a rustic look anyway I wasn't too concerned.

There was no sealant on the armoire, so I sanded it just enough to abrade the surface and painted it with a glossy dark blue paint left over from my breakfast nook bench. I considered watching some Youtube videos for stenciling tips, but figured since I'd made it through a master's degree and most of a doctoral degree I could figure out stenciling. I was clearly on a bad decision roll.

When the armoire was dry I centered my stencil on the first armoire drawer and prepared to have a Martha Stewart moment of DIY perfection. Using a foam brush I stippled, waited for it to dry, then removed the stencil. 

My tribal triangles resembled nothing so much as blobs. My stippling had bled terribly. I re-sanded and re-painted the drawer then watched a couple Youtube videos on stenciling. I found a scrap piece of wood to practice my stenciling until I had mastered a "rustic" rather than "terrible" look. This involved a two-step technique of stenciling using small art brushes instead of my foam brush then cleaning up any blurred edges with a damp Q-tip.

Cat butt approved
Feeling much more confident I applied this technique to the armoire, rinsing and drying the stencil between each use to prevent any unwanted paint transfer. Since I only had half a stencil it took 18 individual applications over a period of two days. It was a true labor of love and one I do not care to repeat.

Once the stenciling was finished I ordered a sampling of
knobs online. I ultimately chose a faux-bamboo knob in rubbed bronze. Even better, the style was being discontinued so it was deeply discounted.

The full-length closet now holds our tent, two sleeping mats, two folding chairs, two tennis rackets, two bowling balls, and all our camping culinary equipment with room to spare. The mirrored cubby holds my gardening kit and bocce set, while the drawers hold my art supplies and other odds and ends. Given the vast amount of storage offered by a relatively small piece of furniture, I'm pretty sure it's a magical armoire. 

Learning to stencil furniture was a humbling experience. It required much wine and some physical scars to get through it, but the armoire is a great conversation piece and something I've received many a compliment on thus far. It's fun and different and I look forward to refinishing it many more times over the years.

Next time I decide to stencil something, though, I think I'll invest in a pre-made stencil. I love DIY, but there are some things you should just leave to the professionals. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Move Over, Perfection

My name is Eliza, and I am a recovering perfectionist.

Fellow nesters: we are inundated with television shows and magazines that demonstrate how to host perfect casual events. The food is always flawless and the house is always spotless and perfectly decorated. Never mind that it took a team of professionals to make those events look so good, or that they are hosted by professional chefs and designers. I can't tell you how many "tips for hosting an easy weeknight party!" articles I've read that included making calligraphied signage and buying $150 worth of artisanal desserts. These things are not realistic for me, but I want them to be.

I love to host spontaneous gatherings, but I sometimes turn down opportunities because I am mortified at the idea of people knowing our laundry hamper is overflowing or that I don't always make our bed before going to work. My desire for perfection can get in the way of opportunities for laughter and good conversation. But why do we have to have a home that looks like no one lives in it in order to be a good host? Will our friends be offended by the stack of bills on our counter or clean, folded laundry on our dryer? If our decorating is a work-in-progress, is our home any less worthy of being seen?

My husband lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from me: we could be completely out of toilet paper and have dirty dishes piled everywhere and he would still invite people over. Slowly, we are learning to meet in the middle.

I vacuumed 2 days ago and already
the tumbleweeds have returned.
Some things are non-negotiable: cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming the common areas, scooping the litter box, and doing at least a quick dusting are all things on which I will not compromise. There is a difference between imperfection and "eww." No one wants to hit up the chips and dip then see a tumbleweed of husky fur roll by or catch a whiff of cat poo.

For unplanned events this has translated into the "head start" policy: if we spontaneously invite people over we ask for a 10-15 minute head start to ensure those essentials have been attended to before folks arrive. For planned events I still like to deep-clean the house: wiping down baseboards, airing out the house, and arranging fresh flowers in each room. We'll bathe and brush the kids, poop-scoop the yard, plan a menu, and stock the bar.

But if I'm honest with myself I really can't say those "perfect" events are any more fun than the scruffier version. Sometimes it's the spontaneous events create the best memories. Regardless of the state of my baseboards people continue to come back, and that's all I really wanted.


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Home is...Somewhere

Last week I was in Eastern Connecticut visiting family and friends. I was born in New Hampshire and have visited my grandparents in Stonington, CT every year since I was born. Despite the fact my family moved to Kansas City when I was 5 years old, New England still feels like home to me.

I know U.S. Routes 1 and 1A like the back of my hand. I know that clam chowder should NEVER involve tomatoes, that you should always buy your gas in Rhode Island, that going to the package store means you're buying booze, and that sprinkles should rightfully be called jimmies. I know that "ayuh" means "yes," "Downeast" means coastal Maine, Spring equals snow, and asking for directions frequently results in being told "well, you can't get there from here." I may not have the right accent to talk the talk, but I can still walk the walk.

However, this past trip was different. For the first time, New England didn't feel fully like "home."

A week before my trip my friends were wanting to nail down details for my visit, despite the fact it was a holiday weekend and no one had any plans except roasting on the beach. I couldn't wrap my head around why a detailed itinerary was necessary for a casual weekend...this just isn't something that's done in the Southeast. A casual get together with friends is almost always spur of the moment. One time a friend showed up unexpectedly at our house with a bottle of bourbon and an hour later we had 12 people over for a barbecue. Asking someone over for dinner a week in advance elicits suspicious looks and non-committal replies of "might could." All this planning was stressing me out.

Fast forward to my arrival...

The scenery and smells said "New England"...
My second night in Connecticut my grandmother took me out to dinner at a new restaurant in a boatyard in Mystic. Before you even ask: yes, Mystic as in "Mystic Pizza."

The restaurant's patrons were dressed in the typical New England uniform: button down shirts with red shorts or dresses with nautical prints. The air smelled like seaweed and, despite being the end of June, there was a chill in the air as the sun set over the masts of the docked sailboats. It was New England perfection.

Then our waitress brought us water...in mason jars. The cocktail menu featured mint juleps and moonshine Moscow mules. A bit crankily, I ordered a Nor'easter. If I wanted Southern drinks I would have stayed in the South, thank you very much.
...the presentation and menus said "Southeast."
Then we got the dinner menu. It had shrimp and grits and jambalaya alongside more standard fare like lobster rolls and steamers. I looked around suspiciously to make sure we hadn't been transported to Charleston, NC via some space-time rift.

Lest you think I am overreacting, I am well aware that the South no longer has a corner on the moonshine-mason jar-grits market. Those staples have long since become trendy, and therefore fair game for everyone. However, in 30 years of spending time in New England I had never seen these Southern influences so blatantly displayed.

And here's the kicker:

My northern family and friends are bemused by the idea of going south of the Mason Dixon line (except Florida...half of Florida's population is actually from New England which makes it acceptable). Some are even alarmed at the prospect. They see the South as racist, uneducated, and backwards and Appalachia as the land of inbreeding. I exaggerate a bit, though not much. Many jokes were made by friends and family about having to come to Knoxville for my wedding. "Will you be serving squirrel?" "If I hear banjos I'm out of there." "Should I pack lace gloves and a fan?"

And after all the grief I'd been given for moving below the Mason Dixon line and loving it, here everyone was enjoying grits and moonshine like it was no big deal. I guess can't blame New Englanders for knowing a good thing when they taste it, but it was WEIRD. And I LIKED it. At that moment, I felt both more at home and more confused about where home is than ever before.

I missed these faces
while I was away.
I am happy to be back in Knoxville with David and my fur-children and my little house and my non-planning friends, but I do feel like something is missing. I am itching to finish my PhD and go in search of that missing piece. This trip made me realize that I want my lobster and my moonshine, too...and that it's possible to have both. If I can just find some of that New England seaside charm in the Southeast, I know I'll have found heaven on earth.