Friday, July 19, 2013

One Small Step for My Man, One Giant Leap for DIY Newbies

One of the best things about buying our house is that it was cheap(ish). The price enabled us to finally buy our first house after 7 years of marriage, which was a huge deal to us after living in rentals and my parents' house for so long. On the flip side, the only reason why we were able to afford this house was because it was a.) pretty old (it was built in 1960) and b.) not in the best of shape.

Case in point, the front porch steps were in desperate need of repair. Our inspector pointed out a few loose bricks during our home inspection. At that time, we took a mental note and planned on doing a bit of tuckpointing in the near future. In the meantime, we just made a habit of using the back door and encouraged most of our friends and relatives to do the same.

The problem came to a head about 10 months after we moved in. It was the day before Halloween when we realized that one of the bricks on the bottom step had come completely detached from the porch. No biggie. We figured we'd just get some mortar and stick it back in. Easy, right?

The most pressing problem was Halloween. I had nightmares of little kids in masks running up to our front door only for the steps to give way and have some little Jack Sparrow or Rapunzel trip and break their ankle - or worse. So we tried to discourage trick-or-treaters from coming to the front door by putting a sawhorse with a "WARNING!" sign taped to it, keeping the porch light turned off and putting out another sign telling people to come to the back door. It mostly worked, although we did have quite a few kids coming to the front door anyway. And so I spent the evening dashing out the door and waving my arms yelling "Use the back door!" to everyone who attempted to walk up our drive. Classy.

Unfortunately, the next day we realized the extent of the problem was far worse than we originally thought. My dad and Pete got to looking at the step more closely and discovered the bricks were just barely clinging together. Once we pulled that away, the bricks just came out with barely a tug. The "mortar" underneath was like pure sand. I have no idea if it was actual sand or just a cheap mortar that deteriorated over time. Either way, we were able to pull most of the bricks out within 10 minutes, which left us with this...

Pretty, ain't it? Broken, useless and dangerous. And check out those fat, slimy slugs crawling all over it. In fact, we found a quite a few creepy crawlies after we took the tarp off that had been covering it. Ewwwww.

Here's a few more photos to really give you an idea of what we were dealing with. Note the big chunks of original mortar. That stuff, unlike the cheap, sandy filler we dug out, was like bedrock. This stuff was probably pretty good in its day. Unfortunately for us, to do any kind of repair we were going to have to chisel all of it out to make for a clean slate to begin rebuilding. Oh, and for added fun, there were several broken bricks and a completely uneven foundation made from broken cinder blocks. Oh goody.

We debated for several weeks before this on how to proceed. We even considered hiring someone to do it for us, but that just wasn't financially feasible for us. Finally, I said to Pete, "Let's just do it already. Seriously, how hard can laying one little brick step be?" Sigh. Famous last words. Still, we pressed on and got to work. Here's a little photo play-by-play of how it went:

First, we spent the best part of two days chiseling away at all that leftover mortar.This was out in the heat over the Fourth of July holiday. I think we probably drove our neighbors a bit mad with our constant "chink, chink, chinking" throughout the day, but I never had so much fun.

Next, it was up to Pete to fill in that gaping void and attempt to create some sort of level foundation. Luckily, we inherited a bag of Quikcrete that the previous owner left in the shed. It was far too gravelly to use as mortar, but it worked well as a base filler.

Meanwhile, I continued to chink away at the bricks. I won't lie, this was backbreaking work. Why did we decide to clean all the old bricks off this way rather than just buy new ones you ask? Well, for two reasons: 1.) we did buy 30 new bricks from Lowe's for this project, but when we compared them to our bricks, they didn't come close to matching. Ours were multicolored with little impressions in them. These were plain, red bricks that would have really stuck out like sore thumbs. 2.) the solid red bricks that cap the top of the steps are made of red clay and were notoriously hard to source. We accidentally split the corner off one during our chiseling and so Pete went looking to replace it. He visited four different places and came up empty-handed at all of them. Apparently, they just don't make 'em like they used to.

Finally, it was time to start laying the brick. For this, we used a different bag of mortar mix recommended to us by the guy at Lowe's. This stuff is supposed to repel water better than other types of mortar. Fingers crossed!

Finally starting to come together. Messy, but solid.

Time to start laying the top bricks. This proved more difficult than we first thought as we had to figure out how to fit all the bricks together back the way they were. Fortunately, several pieces came away with two pieces still held together with the original mortar. This meant we only had to relay the odd single or double piece instead of relaying all of them one at a time.

Nearly there! At this point I really started to get excited. Everything seemed to be going well and the step was finally starting to look like a step again. Yay!

Phew! All the bricks are in place. It's still messy, but at least it's solid again.

At this point, we still had two things left to do. One was to fill in a few seams of mortar here and there. You'll notice the top step had a big gap between two of the bricks. Second, was to do an acid wash to clean everything up. I turned to good old Google for this and found out that the best thing to use for this is muriatic (hydrochloric acid). This is super scary stuff that you don't want to be messing around with unless you are properly prepared. In fact, I was so scared I looked around for alternatives. I did read that phosphoric acid can do a pretty good job, but for old red clay bricks like ours, muriatic acid is the best.

So, Pete went down to our local Ace hardware store and bought a gallon plus all the safety gear he would need (eye goggles, chemical resistant rubber gloves and respirator). He also made sure to wear long sleeves and jeans. Note: Please, please don't try using this stuff without doing proper research and wearing the required safety gear. Muriatic acid is nasty stuff that can cause severe burns to the skin, eyes or when inhaled! Here's a photo I snapped of Pete suited up and ready to go:

The acid did its job and cleaned most of the excess mortar off the bricks.There's still quite a lot of uneven mortar lines and residue, which is probably because we left it too long before using the acid. Still, we're thrilled with the results. Our goal was to have a solid, brick step that wouldn't be cause for a lawsuit. And hey, if it looked pretty decent, that's even better. Here's the final product:

Overall I'd say we're pretty thrilled with the results. We've never done anything close to this before. Heck, we don't even own set of drill bits! But we went ahead anyway and got it done. It's not the prettiest front porch in the world and don't look too close at how straight it is, but at least it's not a gaping hole in front of our house. Now, about that front door...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Sweet Room for Sweet Dreams

Well, I suppose one really shouldn't wait almost seven weeks between posts when trying to start a blog, but eh, life happens. In truth, we just haven't done anything lately that was worth posting about. Our DIY and decorating plans are very much based on our financial situation, which has been pretty tight. Fortunately, we got a decent tax refund this year. And so, after putting the majority of it into savings should disaster strike, we took a little bit and used it to begin overhauling our master bedroom. Yay!
So this is what it has looked like for the past year or so. Yeah, I know. Pretty embarrassing, huh?

General clutter disaster aside, you'll note the unsightly paint splodge and holes on the wall where the previous owner had their TV. Then there's the nasty ochre shade with fringe on the window (also the previous owner's). Hard to believe we've lived here for 16 months, isn't it? And then of course we have the completely mismatched bed skirt, duvet cover, pillows and wall color. I think we've got olive green, lavender and sky blue all represented.
Anyway, we finally tackled this wreck of a room last week during Pete's spring break from school. Thanks to a lick of paint, some new bedding (purchased on clearance from J.C. Penney) and a major clear out it now feels much more "ahhhh."
Check it out...
We're not finished by any means, but at least we can get to our bed without tripping over my mountain of clothes. And the wall color is amazing! It's Pale Smoke by Benjamin Moore color matched to Glidden. We're thrilled with the results.
Now we're thinking about what window coverings we want, a new light fixture, a cozy seating area, a big rug, some photos and art on the walls. I also want to refinish that chest of drawers, too. It was a freebie we took off my brother and sister-in-law's hands. That, however, will be a different project for this summer.
If anyone has any suggestions for making this room even better, I'm all ears. I'm the first to admit I'm flying blind here. This is my first attempt at any kind of decorating beyond painting my childhood bedroom pastel peach and hanging Monet posters in my college dorm room. I welcome all the help I can get.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Home at last

Hello and welcome to Crumpets and Cornfields! I've been toying with the idea of starting a blog for, oh, about seven years. I really ought to have started one back in 2005 when my husband, Pete, and I first got married.

Pete is English, and I'm "The American" as his late nana used to call me. Yeah, it sounds all so Downton Abbey, but the reality is far less exciting. I'll save the LONG story of how we met for another post. But the short version is that he's English, I'm American and I hopped across the pond following our July 2005 wedding here in the States.

We spent approximately 4.5 years living in England. How was it? Rainy. Beautiful, but very, very rainy and cold. Sorry British friends and family, 65 degrees F is NOT cause to break out the sunblock. Just sayin'. This photo is of a freak hail storm in July. Not my ideal way to spend the 4th.

Anyway, in March 2010 we quit our jobs; sold our cars, furniture and appliances; said goodbye to England and headed west. We arrived in my home state of Illinois (the not-as-cool-as-Chicago-southern-half) and ended up living with my parents for 20 months. Yep, that's right. At the grand old age of 30, I moved back in with my parents (back into my old bedroom!) with my husband of five years and our 15-month-old daughter in tow. Well, ya gotta do what ya gotta do, right?
Thankfully, a year and a half later we both had found full-time jobs, Baby No. 2 was on his merry way and we were able to buy this little brick ranch house four streets away from my parents' house. We certainly didn't intend it to happen that way. We just fell in love with the house and knew it would be perfect for our first real home. We had rented two other places in England and were aching to finally buy our own home.

At just 1,086-square-feet, it's definitely not huge, but at least it's ours. No more renting. No more living with the parents. And it has (almost) everything we want in a house.

We've got big plans for this little house. We're just not exactly sure how to make them a reality yet, but we will. I've only just discovered the wonderful world that is DIY blogs (hello Petersiks, Centsational Girl, 4Men1Lady and Sarah at Ugly Duckling House!) and am slowly but surely making my way through all the amazing ideas and projects that are out there. We'll get there eventually. One project at a time. Thanks for stopping by and come back often to find out how we're getting on.