Monday, March 18, 2013

Old Wood Wall Hanging

I love old houses.  Have I ever mentioned that?  I really do.  One of my current favorite DIY shows is Rehab Addict.  It's about a spunky, tiny little lady from Detroit, now living in Minneapolis, who brings old, run-down houses back to life. She does a spectacular job.  I love watching the transformation from something that used to be condemned and on the verge of being demolished by the city, to a lovely, charming, historically accurate home.  She doesn't throw a bunch of trendy touches in.  She sticks with timeless, classic features.  She does most of her shopping between salvage yards (how I long to visit one or two of them!) and her own garage, where she keeps a stockload of wood and other various items that she has either torn out of a previous job or picked up off the curb.

My love for old houses predates Rehab Addict, though.  One of the reasons that we bought this house was because it had a decidedly non-open floor plan.  I like formal dining rooms and living rooms that were once called "parlors" and probably only used on Sunday afternoons, or maybe for tea on other days.  I love front porches where people used to actually sit and meet with neighbors.  I love wood floors and mahogany trim and wavy glass windows.

Alas, I live around the turn of the century, but not the one when this house was built.

We don't heat our homes with wood stoves anymore.  So we have to worry about energy efficiency, lest our gas bill top $200 a month.  Old wood windows with wavy glass just didn't keep our bills down (I think our highest ever was about $620, after a particularly cold month).  We lead busy lives with our busy kids, and yet expect everything to be neat and tidy, often forgetting how the lack of a garage and the unpaved driveway make this nearly impossible.  We now know the dangers of asbestos and lead-based paint, plenty of which has been used in houses that have passed their hundredth birthdays.

So I don't have the luxury of being a restoration purist, and we have had to make adjustments.  A few years ago, we put up vinyl siding to cover the cement shingle siding that most likely contained asbestos, and that had been covered in lead paint.  We couldn't remove and replace them because of the cost of asbestos abatement, and we couldn't scrape and repaint them because of lead.  The only thing that we could do was contain it (it's harmless if you just leave it alone), and vinyl was the only cost-efficient option for us. I am happy with it, but I imagine that many restoration devotees would shiver at the thought.  To really give them the willies, we also had vinyl window replacements installed.  Again, it just wouldn't have made sense, cost-wise, to replace with expensive wood windows.  The neighborhood just wouldn't have supported it in resale value, even if we could have afforded it,  To save energy, and also just to be able to get some fresh air in the house (most of the windows were painted shut), we did the only thing that we could do, and that was vinyl replacements.

It was probably around that time that I really started to fall in love with old stuff.  Obviously, I already had a fondness, but it went into high gear at this time.  My hands were tied on a lot of things, but I managed to hang on to my front door, and I suddenly started noticing how absolutely beautiful wavy glass is.  How it distorts the view of the leaves fluttering on the trees in the most fascinating way.
The front door is not only original (other than
the stained glass that I replaced a few years ago)
but it, and the door on the other side of the
entryway contain the only original wavy glass
left in the house now.

A small concession to the energy savings, but totally worth it.

It was then that I decided that I could not let this piece of history go into the trash heap.  We had to get rid of the windows because of the lead paint content.  But there was nothing wrong with the glass itself.  So I began painstakingly cutting the glazing out around the windows, trying my best to avoid those pesky metal tips that were intended to hold the glass in the frame, but had the frustrating effect of starting a long, instant crack in the glass if you hit it with the knife just right.  Of course, I could only do the non-essential windows at first, like the porch and the shed.  The rest of the windows had to be done in one weekend, right before the new ones came to replace them.  Fortunately, we have good friends who came and helped us.

Why would I want to store all of that glass?  Well, at first I was hoping to sell it.  There are plenty of people who are restoring historical homes, who would love to have antique glass to use in their custom built windows.

But apparently not in Grand Rapids.

Still, I couldn't just throw it in the trash.  So I decided that I would use it, as much as possible, in the house.  The cupboards over our mudroom will have glass doors, as well as some of the cupboards in an eventual kitchen renovation.  So I will recycle that glass into those doors.  I can use them for artwork, rather than purchasing new glass with the frames.  And if we decide to put in a new window somewhere, maybe we'll decide to spring for just that one custom window that uses the best, biggest piece that we were able to salvage.

So that was the beginning.  And now I find myself wanting to salvage all that I can.  Am I going to jump on the Save the Pink Bathrooms bandwagon?


Most decidedly not.

It wasn't a good idea in the 1950's, and it still isn't a good idea.  No more than Harvest Gold and Avocado kitchens were a good idea in the 1970's (how lucky am I that I had one of those, too!?).  No, my hardcore restorationist friends, there is nothing worth saving about a pink bathroom.  I've lived with this utterly charmless one for long enough to know.

But hey, that's just one girl's opinion.

I digress.   The point is, I want to hang on to the integrity of the house as it was built, as much as possible, and I am not so quick to throw out anything that was here for fifty or more years.  Unless it's pink, Harvest Gold or avocado.

For instance, wood.

I never knew that 2x4 boards are not 2" x 4".  But they used to be, and that's what our house is built with.  Maybe I'm a dork, but I think that's kind of neat.  Of course, most of the wood that we have uncovered has stayed right where it is, only getting new sheetrock clothing when the plaster has been beyond repair.  But in opening up our back entryway to the kitchen to make room for the mudroom lockers, we actually took out a little piece of the wall.  That doesn't bother me a bit, since it was clearly not an original wall.  The walls were covered in these cheap, almost cardboard-like sheets that I was glad to be rid of.  We didn't think a whole lot about it, and tossed everything.  Then we went to an antique/resale shop and saw this:

I thought it was kind of neat, and mentioned that I could probably make something like that.  Jeff remembered the old wood that we had just tossed, and said that I should use that.  Fortunately, it was tossed in a place that it could be reacquired.  Jeff fished it out for me.  

Of course, being two inches thick, it was a bit heavy for any kind of wall hanging, so we actually doubled up our bounty by ripping it in half with the table saw.  Very messy, but definitely an improvement.

I have some other projects in mind for this wood, but really, I just love having it.  The more used and messed up it is, the better.  Here's my first project:

First, I had to choose my design.  I had decided to go with Micah 6:8, since it is a good reminder of what God expects of us in this life.  It can get rather complicated, but the simplicity of this verse (especially in light of what comes before it) is breathtaking.  I thought it might be a good reminder to our family as we come and go, and so I plan to hang it on the wall across from the lockers.

Once I had the verse, I simplified it a little for space.  Then I went to Google docs and typed up the words that I planned to use.  I played a little with the fonts, using the ones that I felt conveyed each command, and printed them out.  It took a few tries, but I finally got the size and fonts that I wanted.  Then I was able to cut the wood to size.  I am trying to use it conservatively, so that it lasts for many more projects, so I used up a couple of smaller sized pieces, and cut one to size.  

From there, I tried to use the stenciling technique that I learned from my friend Jody and used on the back wall of our new cupboards, but it didn't work.  The wood was too dark from age and I wasn't able to see the pencil transfer!  Bummer, because Jody's way is way easier than my old method.

Homemade stencils.  All it takes is a printout and a nice, sharp xacto knife, but boy, is it time-consuming (and neck-wrenching, and hand-cramping.....).  It works, though.  All you have to do is go slow and remember to leave little tabs wherever there is a fill, like in the "o" and "e" above.  Depending on the font, this can be no problem or quite tricky.

Once the stencils were cut out, I just taped them onto the wood to hold them steady, and carefully traced the words with pencil.  I had to press pretty hard and go over it a few times in order to see the pencil, but it worked.

After that, I just started filling the letters in with paint that I found in the basement.  It was years old, but it stirred up and worked just great.  I went with a lighter color of paint, because I didn't want the letters to look super bold.  I wanted it to look as though the words had been there for decades, and had faded with time.  In order to do that, I had to use a light touch with the paint.  Because of the craggy nature of the wood, I had to paint with the grain.  It was a little pain-staking, but the whole project was done in an afternoon.

The last thing I had to do was to figure out how to hang it.  If I had a ready-made metal rack, that would have been handy.  But I didn't.  Plus, I don't really want to drill holes in the wall to hang it.  I am planning on putting some Victorian-style picture moulding in some other rooms, so I thought I might use it in the mudroom, as well.  That way, I can avoid putting holes in the wallpaper and leave my options open to do something else later.  So I just needed something that I could hang it with.

I bought a length of ivory rope, drilled holes in the wood from top to bottom (I had to measure to make sure that the holes in each piece would line up and balance the total piece), and then threaded the rope through the wood from top to bottom and back up again.  Between each board, I made a tight knot to separate the pieces a bit.  And then I left plenty of rope at the top to hang from the moulding with an S hook.  It's not hung yet, since the wall isn't finished and ready yet.  But here it is, ready to go as soon as the mudroom is finished.

Next time you see one of those signs in the store, consider saving your money and digging around in your garage or basement to see what materials you might be able to use to make your own for free!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pita Chips and Hummus Three Ways

I was eating hummus before hummus was cool.  Okay, so maybe that statement is a little misleading.  It's not like it was a part of our weekly meal plan, and we weren't famous for bringing the Banks Hummus to parties in the 80's.  But I did eat it way back in 1986.

We had never heard of it before we took a trip to Israel.  The first time that I specifically remember eating hummus was for lunch outside of Bethlehem, in a little tiny shack called Scheherazade.  Our tour guide (Eli, if my memory is to be trusted) told us the story behind the name of the restaurant.  At this particular lunch, and several after that day, we were served a basket of pita loaves and three spreads.  To be honest, I don't remember what the other two were, though I wouldn't be surprised to find that one was baba ganoush, the middle eastern roasted eggplant spread.  What I remember most was that it seemed an odd lunch.  Pita, I was down with.  But these weird pastes?  Not so much. Oh well, I was hungry, given the lavish breakfast buffet of unpitted olives (ouch!) and who-knows-what-else at the hotel.  It really was quite beautiful, but to my 13 year old eyes, it was the weirdest version of breakfast I could imagine.  So I was definitely hungry by lunchtime. As it turns out, hummus wasn't too bad.  The adults in our party loved it.  So much so, that when we had a reunion party a year later, my mom brought hummus and pita.  Except that she called it "hyoo-mis".  So fast forward a decade or so, I didn't immediately recognize the big bowl of stuff that my Lebanese boss' wife brought to the company Christmas party.  When she mentioned that it was made with chickpeas, I made the connection.  She may not have appreciated my story of first eating it in Israel, given her "PALESTINE" keychain, but I might have made up for it by telling her how good her hummus was.

Of course, I forgot about hummus for another decade or so, until it suddenly became the hip "new" party dip.  Suddenly, it was everywhere. And most of it was inedible.  Well, maybe not inedible, but I could find no good reason to bother eating it.  However, when I was pregnant with my youngest son, someone brought it to a party, and for whatever reason, I decided to try it.  It was fantastic!  I wasn't interested in anything else on the buffet.  The hummus was just amazing.  I asked for her recipe, but she said that she had just bought it at Meijer, in the deli section.  GREAT!  I could just go and get the Meijer hummus!  Except, there's a whole section of hummus.  I tried a couple of them, but they were all awful and went uneaten.  Was the hummus at the party really that great, or was it just pregnancy?  I'll never know.  But the positive experience at least made me want to find a good hummus or recipe.

Over the next few years, I found a couple of ready-made hummuses   hummi  versions of hummus that were quite good.  Mediterranean Island, a fantastic import grocery store on Kalamazoo, just north of 44th Street in Kentwood, MI has very good hummus in their deli section (along with the very best prices on excellent olives that you will find).  Le Kebob, the mediterranean restaurant on Alpine in Comstock Park, has absolutely delicious hummus that they serve with either pita chips or warm pita loaves.  I don't know which is better.  However, I don't get down to Kentwood very often, and it bugs me to pay so much at a restaurant for something that is so simple and inexpensive to make.

Trouble was, I just couldn't find a good recipe!  I tried trusted sources, internet finds that came with good reviews, even a cookbook that I had possessed for years without realizing that hummus was in there.  Nothing was very good.

Until......and this should come as no surprise.........until I tried the hummus recipe in The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.  Seriously, do the people at ATK (Cook's Illustrated, Cook's Country) ever fail?  Finally, I had found a fantastic, easy, basic, inexpensive recipe for hummus that actually didn't end up in the trash when I cleaned out the fridge weeks later.

We had been pretty happy with this basic hummus, but there is always a desire to tweak things just for fun.  So I did that a couple of weeks ago when I needed to take the snack to our small group meeting.  I have a bad habit of experimenting on groups.  I think I just like the feedback.  Taste is so subjective, and while Jeff and I may or may not like something, it's still fun to see what other people think.  My kids aren't the greatest test subjects.  They like smoked oysters, so......I can't really trust their palates.  So I do the only thing I can do:  I experiment at potlucks and parties.  Usually, it works out okay.  Sometimes, not.  When I am expecting a negative reaction, I just make sure not to use the dishes that have a label with my name on them.

Anyway, the hummus that I sent to small group seemed to go over quite well.  First, I'll tell you how to make the basic ATK hummus, and then I'll show you how I tweaked it.

Here are the ingredients.  There is not much to the recipe itself.  Basically, you drain and rinse the chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), and throw them into a food processor or blender with some olive oil, tahini (sesame seed paste), lemon juice, a garlic clove, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and some salt.  Whir it around for a bit, stop the machine and scrape down the bowl, and whir again until everything is very smooth. Refrigerate it for at least an hour, and it's ready.

The two ideas that I had seen in stores and on restaurant menus and wanted to try are roasted garlic hummus, and roasted red pepper hummus.  So here's what I did.

For the roasted garlic hummus, I simply added a couple of cloves to the recipe, and instead of just tossing everything in the food processor, I coarsely chopped the garlic and put it in a small pot with the olive oil.  I brought it to a simmer, and then turned it down to a bare simmer until the garlic was lightly browned, but still soft, about 10 minutes.  Is this technically roasted garlic?  No.  But it comes out very similar, and has the added benefit of infusing the olive oil with the garlic flavor.  The combination adds a sweet garlicky punch to the hummus.  After the oil has cooled to lukewarm, just add it and the soft garlic to the rest of the ingredients in the food processor and proceed.  Nothing else changed.


Now for the roasted red pepper hummus, my personal favorite!

I like to char my peppers right on the stovetop.  Of course, this only works if you have a gas stove.  If not, you can actually roast them in the oven.  But this is quick and fun in a pyromaniacal sort of way.  Just turn your burner on high and put the pepper on the grate, right over the flame.  Let it sit until the skin is completely black (you'll need to check on it periodically with tongs), and then turn it and repeat until all sides of the pepper are back.  At this point, the skin only is blackened, and the flesh is pretty soft.  However, it's also really, really hot, with boiling juices inside, so handle only with a utensil--tongs work best.

Once the pepper is away from the flame, make sure that there are no sparks still attached, and then pop it into a small paper bag.  Fold the bag up and let the pepper sit for about 10 minutes.  This will steam the pepper, which continues to soften the flesh and also loosens the charred skin.

Once it's cool enough to handle, you can just rub the blackened skin right off of the pepper.  Just don't squeeze the pepper too much while you are rubbing, because there are still hot juices in there, and you don't want them to squirt out on you!

And there it is:  One fabulously sweet, soft red pepper.

As I said, you can accomplish the same thing in the oven, if you have an electric stove.  You can either set the peppers on a sheet pan and place them under the broiler to blacken (turning occasionally), or put them in a 450 oven for about 40 minutes.  Still place the blackened peppers in the paper bag to steam and loosen the skins.

But yes, you could just buy a jar at the store and use the equivalent of one pepper.  It will still be good, but the charred flavor will be muted, since it's been sitting in liquid for who-knows-how-long.

Now you will have to remove the stem and seeds from the pepper.  I find that the easiest way to do this is to hold the pepper over a bowl and use a paring knife to cut a circle around the stem, and then pull it out.  The bowl will catch the juice and some of the seeds.  Let all the juice drain out before proceeding. Then lay the pepper down on the cutting board and split it open from top to bottom.  You'll be able to lay it open, pretty flat, and scrape out the rest of the seeds with your knife.  Now, just chop the pepper flesh coarsely and put it in the bowl of the food processor.

The only other changes that I made were to use a bit of hot sauce instead of the cayenne (since it helped to make the color a bit rosier) and to add just a bit of honey to enhance the natural sweetness of the pepper.  I thought it was just a great balance of sweet and spicy, without being overwhelmed by either.

And favorite part!  The pita chips.

I hate store-bought pita chips.  They are dry, stale, bland little things that resemble cardboard.  Blech.

And homemade pita chips are super easy, so there's no reason not to make them!

Start out with regular old pita bread.  I got mine from Meijer.  They make a thicker chip, which I kind of like.  But if you go to Mediterranean Island to get their hummus, you should still make your own pita chips and use their pita bread, which is larger and thinner, so they make a thinner chip.

First, use kitchen shears or a paring knife to separate the halves of the pita loaf.  Of course, I forgot to do that, and just cut mine in half first, thus making more work for myself.  Don't do that.  Cut them so that you end up with two full circles, one side of each smooth (outside) and one side rough (inside).

Lay one piece, rough side up, on your board and brush lightly with olive oil.  Then place another piece on top of the first, and brush it.  Repeat until you have a nice stack.

Sometimes, brushing "lightly" is difficult.  The craggy nature of the bread seems to suck up the initial contact of the brush, and then it is hard to spread around.  The best technique I have found to avoid this is to lightly tap the just-dipped brush all over the surface of the bread, and then do my best to spread all of those spots.  Failing that (as the picture above illustrates), I just take the next piece of dry pita, and place it upside down on top of the one that is too heavily oiled, and press.  It helps to soak some of the excess oil into the dry piece.

Once you have a nice stack, cut the pita into wedges.  Each round can make 6 or 8 wedges, depending on preference and size of the loaf.

And from here on, I got too excited about the impending pita chips and forgot to take any pictures.  Fortunately, the rest is easy.  Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Spread the wedges out in a single layer on a sheet pan.  If you are doing a whole package of pita, you'll need to bake them in batches.  It's okay if they overlap just a little, but not much.  Now sprinkle them with salt.  I like the crunch and hit of coarse Kosher salt.  Sea salt would also be a good option.  I wouldn't use regular table salt.  It's just too easy to oversalt them that way.  But if you go light, it could work.

Now, just bake them for 8-11 minutes.  You'll want them to just be turning light brown in a few places, but most of them should not change in color.  They will just feel stiff to the touch, but again, some of them will still be slightly pliable.  Most of them will continue to crisp up as they cool.  If a few of them remain a little soft, count yourself lucky.  They are the best ones.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Tuscan Sausage and Potato Soup

You know what one of my favorite things to do is?  

Rip off recipes from restaurants.

Okay, perhaps I should say, recreate our favorite restaurant dishes at home.  That sounds so much nicer, eh?

I do love it, though.  Not only does it entail one of my favorite pastimes: kitchen experimentation, but it also means that I can schedule in that favorite dish when we really don't want to (or can't) spend the money at a restaurant.

When we go to Olive Garden, I would rather have the soup, salad and breadsticks than anything else on the menu.  I'm picky about pasta and pasta sauces.  And I refuse to spend upwards of $10 on something that I could make just as well, if not better, at home.  But the salad....well, who doesn't like Olive Garden's salad?  It's not fancy.  It's not gourmet.  It just tastes good.  The breadsticks?  They seem to be hit or miss. Even on bad days, though, they are just fine when dipped in the only soup that I ever request:  Zuppa Toscana.

You know what I love about soup?  The best ones are uncomplicated.  Just a few ingredients that compliment each other.  This soup is no exception.  And there are few dishes more comforting than soup on a cold winter evening. 
Let's get started.

I am trying to prepare mise en place this year.  There is nothing worse than watching something scorching as you are trying desperately to chop/wash/slice the next ingredient.  There are some meals that this becomes more important than others.  Whenever you find that you keep moving around the pot or pan until all the ingredients are in, that's a time when mise en place will help you not to lose your mind.  It's well worth washing a few extra dishes.  Here, I've chopped an onion, minced 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced some potatoes, washed and torn some kale, and measured out some white wine.  It's all in its own container, and ready when I need it.  Now it's time to start cooking.

If you can find bulk hot Italian sausage, by all means, use it and skip this first step.  I usually just grab some at Meijer, and they rarely have the bulk stuff.  It's always in casings.  You need to get it out.  So use the tip of a sharp knife and make a slit down the length of the sausage. Peel the casing away.  It should come right off.  

Then drop the sausages into a cold Dutch oven.  Turn the heat on medium and begin breaking them up with the edge of a spatula or spoon.

If you start with a cold pan and cook over medium or lower heat, it will tend to draw the fat away from the meat more effectively.  Just like you can keep the juices in meat by searing over high heat, you can also draw them out over lower heat.  This way, there is no need for additional oil to cook the meat.  If you find that your sausages are particularly lean, go ahead and add just enough olive oil to keep the meat from sticking.

Turn the heat down the lowest setting. Have a paper towel-covered plate ready, and scoop the browned meat out to drain with a slotted spoon. With additional paper towels, carefully blot the grease that is left in the pan.  Don't scrape, though.  You want all the browned bits to remain in the pan, since they will flavor the soup. 

Now you can turn the heat back up to medium high and add a bit of olive oil to the pan.  It's time to saute the aromatics.

Remember this?  You now get to very calmly grab your bowl of chopped onion and drop it into the shimmering (not smoking) olive oil. Sprinkle a little Kosher salt over the onions and stir them around to coat in the oil.  It's okay to scrape the browned bits a little now, but they won't come up completely until you add the liquids.  Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they turn from white and crunchy like this...... soft and brown, like this.  That should take just a few minutes.  Now turn the heat up to high, add the garlic and stir it around for about 30 seconds, or until you can just smell it.  

Now you can deglaze the pan with the wine.  Just toss it in there and start scraping the bottom of the pot.  I prefer to use a wooden spoon for this, since it is tough enough not to bend like a silicone spatula, but it won't damage the pot's surface the way metal could.  Once the pan is deglazed and the wine is somewhat evaporated, add the sausage back to the pan, and toss in the potatoes, as well.  Stir them around to combine.

Go ahead and add the kale now.  It will look like way too much, but it's not.  It will soften and cook down.  I probably use more kale than Olive Garden does, but I probably also use more potatoes and sausage than Olive Garden does.  I'm not serving it as a brothy first course.  This is dinner.  So I like to make it hearty.  Oh, and don't be afraid of the kale.  Cooked, it really has a mild flavor.  It wilts a bit, but not so much that it loses it structure completely, as spinach would.  It really stands up for itself.  I love adding it to soups. 

Finally, add the broth to the pot.  Sprinkle in the salt and pepper, and give it a good stir.  Cover the pot and bring the soup just to a boil.  Then turn the heat down and simmer for about 30 minutes.  If you want to make it a little earlier, you can let the soup simmer, covered, for a couple of hours.  Just don't add the potatoes or kale until about 45 minutes before you are ready to eat, or they will be overcooked and mushy. 

Now, you could just serve it this way.  It's perfectly delicious and hearty.  However, if you want the real deal, go ahead and pour in some cream and let it heat through.  

And this steaming pot of delicious is what you end up with.  Serve it with a green salad and breadsticks, if you like.  

 I served it with Caprese panini, but I have to say, it was total overkill and we ended up having the soup the next night.  It was my first time making the panini, and I didn't anticipate that it would be so filling.

Try it some time!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mudroom Lockers

Well, we've reached a momentous point in our mudroom project.  The lockers are usable.  That may seem like a small thing, but for a family who have had no good place to store coats or backpacks for several weeks now, it is a wonderful thing to see a dining room chair with nothing hanging on it.  The one moment when I cleared all the coats off of the dining room chairs and the backpacks off of the dining room floor and hung everything up in its own dedicated space made me realize that I would never regret undertaking this project.  To a disorganized mom like myself, mudroom lockers are as a soothing balm to sun ravaged flesh.

Okay, maybe a little dramatic, but I can say that I really, really like having a mudroom!

Now, I said that they are usable, but they aren't finished.  Let me show you where we started, and how we got where we are so far.

This is the former entry room, taken from our kitchen.  The passage to the dining room is on the far right side of the picture, and the door to the side porch is on the other side of the entry, out of view on the left.

This is a closer look at the wall inside of the entry.  There used to be floor to ceiling cupboards here, but they were not well-designed or well-constructed, and they were covered in lead paint.  We had them removed during a lead abatement a few years ago.

The first thing that we did was to remove most of the wall that separated the entry from the kitchen.  This opened the area up a bit, and gave us about a foot more length of wall to work with.  Since space is at a premium here, that extra foot was desperately needed.

When we realized that there was no way that we would finish the lockers before school started, we hung up a two by four on the wall as a temporary measure to contain backpacks.  That vertical beige line is some very old wallpaper that was behind the wall that we removed.

Here's a side by side.

Now, there wasn't a lot of space to work with.  From left to right, there is 79 inches, and from the wall to the edge of the trap door is only 15 inches.  We would have to work within that footprint, which didn't leave room for any wasted space or luxurious elbowroom.

I did what I always do when I come up with an idea but am not sure how to make it work.  I pulled out my graph paper.

It may seem like a waste of time, but I need to know that something is going to work before I go tearing out walls or buying building supplies. Sketching out a basic layout reassured me that there would be enough space for four fairly comfortable lockers, at a reasonable height.  I also wanted to make use of the space above the lockers for some much needed dinnerware storage, so I sketched that out, as well, making sure that the cupboards would look good, be at a reasonable height (I don't want to climb a ladder every time the table is set), and be a useful size. This isn't a complete plan.  There have been a few changes along the way.  But the important thing is that we had a basic plan that we knew would work, before we even got started.

Jeff decided that it would be best to get the first set of cupboards up first.  They kind of defined the wall, and the rest of the unit could be built to fit around them.  We hung them a while ago, but we are waiting on the shelves and doors until the rest of the framework is in place.

Then we needed to finish the floor.

Finally, we were ready to tackle the lockers.  While we used the graph paper layout as a guide, we also have let the details change as inspiration comes.  I never liked the boxy look of straight dividers between lockers, and since each locker has only about a 19" width and 15"depth, I thought that the straight dividers would make it uncomfortable to sit and change from boots to slippers.  We could have done an open bench with a straight line of hooks on the wall, not unlike the picture above.  However, I liked the idea of individual lockers, because then everyone has (and is responsible for) their own space.  Plus, dividers would give us more hook space.  Then I thought, why not have partial wall dividers?  They could define each space, give adequate area to hang hooks toward the top, and yet open up around the elbows, giving more freedom of movement.  Plus, I had a feeling they would look better.

After explaining what I wanted to do to Jeff, he felt like we would have better luck using birch veneer plywood than the MDF that we had used up until now.  He got some advice and borrowed some tools, and asked me to make up a template.  Again, I went to my graph paper.

First, I figured out the total height from the floor to the bottom of the cupboards.  I determined the height of the bench by measuring the height of a chair seat, and subtracting an inch.  I didn't feel like it would be uncomfortable to sit a little lower than a dining chair, and I wanted as much room as possible for the locker space.  So I subtracted 17.5" from the total height.  Then I had to decide how much room to save for the cubbies that would go above the lockers.  I wanted it to be big enough to hold a 9.5"x11" notebook, or a few other things, none of which needed much space in height.  So I decided to make the cubbies about 6" high.  Then I subtracted the 6", as well as 1 3/4" to account for the thickness of the  top of the locker (3/4") and the top and bottom of the cubbies (1/2" each).  That left me with 36.5" of space between the "ceiling" of the locker and the top of the bench.

So, using the graph paper with each section=1", I started drawing my design.   A straight line representing the 36.5" tall back of the divider gave me a place to start.  I decided that I would like to have a little variation in depth between the different components of the unit, so I inset the locker space 2 inches from the total depth available.  That would allow me to do some fun stuff with crown-type trim.  So I drew a line out 13 squares at the top of the other line.  From there, I needed to figure out how low the widest part of the divider would need to be in order to hang hooks.  I thought that the hooks would work well about 4" from the top, and so I added another 3" below that, and drew down 7 spaces.  From there, going downward was really a matter of choice.  Now I needed to start from the bottom.  Along the bench, I wanted the dividers to give the impression that they are providing some support to the rest of the unit.  They don't, as everything is well secured to the studs, but I wanted it to look that way.  Therefore, I wanted the dividers to rest on the bench, and I decided that 6" would look about right.  From there, I decided to go up about 7.5".  Now I had a basic size and shape that would serve the purpose that it needed to serve.  The rest was just freehand shaping to connect the top section to the bottom section.  I'm no artist, but I gave it a whirl, made a few minor adjustments, and realized that I was lucky enough to have a shape that I liked.

Now, transferring that onto a large piece of wood was a different story.

However, because of the handy graph paper, it was pretty easy.  I marked all the dimensions of the shape.  When the line curved, I marked how many inches I needed to go to the left or right, and how many inches I needed to go up or down.  So when I took the paper to the wood, I was able to just use a ruler, mark a dot where the next stop in the line needed to be, and draw an easy curve from point a to point b.  It wasn't unlike completing a dot to dot puzzle, except that I had to map out where the next dot should be before I connected them.  Let me tell you, while it was a bit fussy to go through all those steps, it was so much easier than trying to freehand it all on a big piece of cardboard or wood.  If you're not visually artistic (as I am not), I can tell you that this method is helpful.

This is actually a piece that we didn't end up using.  I tried cutting it out with the borrowed jigsaw, but I didn't hold it straight up, so the cut edge was slanted.  Jeff would have let me try again, but I didn't want to waste the wood!  Instead, I held it down while Jeff cut them out.  After that, they just needed a few spots of wood filler and a good sanding to get the edge smooth.

Next, we needed to get the sides and top attached to the back, and then get the dividers attached.  We laid the back on the floor and marked out exactly where each divider would go, so that they would be evenly spaced.  Ugh.  There is so much math involved in building! Don't get me wrong;  it's very basic math.  But still!  I had to remember to subtract the thickness of the sides, and include the thickness of the dividers when determining how to center them.  My brain isn't used to considering all of those details. Dividing 32 7/8 by 2 and then marking the center, then marking half of the 3/4" thickness on either side of the center so that we could line the 3/4" thick dividers exactly where they needed to go.....Bah!  Oh well, I guess my 40 year old brain needs a tiny little workout now and then.

Finally, we were ready to put the pieces together.  This became a family affair.  Jacob helped me hold the top flush with the edge of the back while Jeff drilled holes and then screwed the pieces together.  Then came the sides, where Nora and Max stepped in to hold one side up while Jacob and I held the other side flush with both the back and top.  Then we switched.  Finally, the kids held the whole thing up while I held each divider in place while Jeff attached it.  Somewhere along the way, Jeff thought to try using the borrowed nail gun to hold each piece steady while he drilled the holes and attached the screws.  It worked like a charm.  It was far easier for us to hold everything flush while he popped a few nails in than against the force of the drill.  That's a lesson we won't forget.

Finally the basic structure was together.  And I was happy.

Next came the bench.  Jeff wanted it to be good and sturdy, so he decided to build a 2x4 frame that would rest on the floor and be bolted to the studs.  This is what he built.

Since the legs of the bench would be visible, we used 1/4" oak veneer plywood to "skin" the legs.  Why oak?  Because we had some left over from the piece that we covered the trap door with.  It was painful to paint it, but it needed to be done.

After adding some baseboard moulding (which I'll detail in a later post), adding some extra support for the hooks, and a bit of caulk here and there, everything got a coat of primer and two coats of paint.  Finally, we were able to attach the hooks and lay the first part of the bench down.  Until the rest of the bench is ready, I can't finish trimming it out, so I can't call it done yet.  But it is supremely usable, and to steal a phrase from that maven of home organization, that is a very good thing.