Archive: The Indiana Farm Kitchen (post-mortem)

Archive: Originally posted 8/31/2010 at

From this:


To this:

This is an overview project after action report rather than a live, as it happens blog post. This is in part because during this adventure, I had only sporadic access to the internet, and I was working excessively long hours to get it done in very little time. I’ll be breaking down this project diary with pictures and detailed notes over time, but for now, this is the overview. (Edited to add that a year later, I still haven’t broken this down, and I probably never will. Ask me questions and I’ll answer, but…)

My family has owned a farm in central Indiana for over 130 years, and the house on the land is 128 years old. It’s always been a farm house, which means it has always sheltered and been maintained by farmers. Farmers are inveterate DIYers, which is probably where I get the trait — or taint — but farmers are often poor, too, so they tend to use the contracting services of Good Enough, That’ll Hold ‘Er, and Good Idea at the Time. 128 years of this can become problematic.

Also, my great-grandfather lived in that house from birth to death — quite literally. He died in 2006, well into his nineties, and for the last thirty or so years of his life, he couldn’t do much of the maintenance such an old house requires. Worse, he couldn’t just pick up the phone and call someone to do it for him because he was deaf — after a lifetime on the tractor (which in those days didn’t have such niceties as mufflers and had straight pipes that came up right beside the driver) his hearing was shot. Hearing aids helped (some) but he couldn’t hear on the telephone and a TTY/TYY was beyond him — he never learned to type. That meant a lot of maintenance got deferred.

The house is most certainly a product of its time — plaster and lathe walls, little insulation, and many of the windows are getting to the point where they need to be replaced. But with a house that has so much history and sentimental value, it’s hard for people to make the decision to bulldoze it and start over. Plus, it’s a great house — twelve foot ceilings on the main floor, lots of room and light, five (effective) bedrooms… but only one bathroom, many odd nooks and storage spots, and a lot of odd decisions over the years. The fact that it has withstood dozens of tornadoes and storms pretty much says it is worth salvaging.

And that’s what my grandmother decided to do. She sold her house in Florida and moved back to Indiana to finance the renovation of this monster of a house. But after 40 years of deferred maintenance, we were looking at some problems, and still are. The bathroom still needs a major reno and the plaster and flooring in most of the house needs to be redone, as well as getting better insulation into the whole thing and replacing out all of the windows. (These are all in various stages of progress or planning.) (ETA: These were completed in the fall of 2010.)

I flew out of Denver on April 13, 2010 to Florida, to help her move. She did have a mover, but when I arrived, her house was far from packed and ready, plus we had to finalize plans for the reno’ed kitchen in Indiana. Since she won’t be reading this, I can say here that her notions of “packing lightly” and “ready to go” are pretty awful.

That packing and drive were adventures in and of themselves (she’s lucky I didn’t feed her to an alligator in Florida panhandle swamps — and I am not suited to heat and humidity, nor did I even get to see the best part of Florida, the ocean, and of course, I will never get to see it the way it was then again, thanks to BP and Halliburton idiots) but the kitchen was the point.

We arrived in Indiana on April 18 to the combined two households of stuff (the movers got there before us)… and it was a lot of stuff. She’s lived in Florida for 30 years, and a 128 year old house accumulates stuff, too. (Also, farmers plus Depression babies plus a slight familial case of packrat not elevated to hoarding level 2… lotsa stuff.) We spent the 19th getting most of the downstairs cleared enough that we could bring in another big pile of stuff (from IKEA) and I spent time making sure my design was going to work. I knew from my first night in the house that I had to replace the bed in the room I normally use (the east bedroom on the second floor) so I planned to also buy a replacement. (This was the best decision I made — I got a simple twin frame and a new mattress, and while it wasn’t my memory foam bed at home — being half the size, not colonized by two cats — one sleeping on my hair — and distinctly lacking my partner — it is a billion times better than the marble slab that had been in “my” room. [As it happens, the room I use in the farm house has been mine before, and I very much like it; it’s on the east side of the house and very comfortable, though small and with the dormer, slanted ceiling.])

Oops. First snag. I had been basing my design on inaccurate measurements — I’d given the kitchen an extra two feet in both directions. (Not sure how I did that, but I did…) That meant jettisoning the idea of an island or peninsula, and wrapping cabinets around the walls instead. I also needed to know where the windows went (not in my original measurements — remember, I’m designing from Colorado, with my family in Florida, Arizona, Illinois and Georgia). That meant spending most of the 19th, while the movers did their thing, with my computer. (Probably pissed them off, but oh, well.)

On April 20, we got up early and drove three hours over mostly back roads to West Chester, OH, to the closest IKEA. We had discussed using a custom service, or Sears’ refinishing surface, but one of the biggest problems in the farm kitchen was the lack of counter space. It quite literally had 42 inches of usable space — two feet between stove and sink and about a foot and a half over the dishwasher (which no longer worked.) Further, we planned to cash in on IKEA’s kitchen sale — buy three appliances and get 20% off your order. (This saved us over $1000, since we had to replace appliances anyway.) We budgeted to spend $7000, and none of the other services could do what we needed for that. Further, the kitchen had a ton of wasted space and a bad layout — no working triangle, few cabinets and drawers, old appliances, and (this, I will never understand) a carpeted floor.

We spent a couple hours wandering through IKEA to finish getting ideas down, then went to work with the Kitchen consultant. $4300 later, we had most of the kitchen purchased. Now, we only needed to buy a few finishing bits (like a bookcase to use instead of a much deeper high cabinet, and a new bed for me and lighting) and we were done. A lot of people have a bit of a hate on for IKEA (I blame Chuck Pissypants’ Fight Club — bad movie, worse book, extreme misogyny and self-hatred wrapped in pseudo-intellectual cultural commentary) but in terms of good, clean design, IKEA can’t be beat. Their stuff is sturdy, easy and logical, not to mention reasonably green (for mass-produced, consumer culture stuff) and inexpensive. It was absolutely worth the 6 hours in the car and the 6 hours wandering the store (and I can’t complain about the lignonberry stuff, either…)

Here’s the interesting bit — I have no real experience with IKEA. I’ve been in a store once before (the one in Schaumberg) and spent hours on their website, but Denver’s IKEA won’t open until 2011, and I was already in Colorado when Arizona got theirs. So in a lot of ways, I was flying blind and relying on the advice of others.

Why did we decide to do the kitchen first? Well, a few reasons. First, I think my grandmother is absolutely nuts to be moving back to Indiana, but it’s the best decision she can make given the circumstances. Property taxes on a working farm where the owner is not resident are brutal, and they were eating her alive. The second set of taxes (on the Florida house) weren’t helping. She doesn’t like cold, but she also has lost a significant number of friends in Florida in the last few years. (She’s 73. This is going to happen, but it doesn’t make it any easier to witness.) Emotionally, she feels a responsibility to the Indiana house that she can’t deny. So do my mother and I, so this move had to be made.

Was the kitchen a priority? Not necessarily. The water sort of worked, it was a more or less functional space. But moving creates a mess and in my mind, one gigantic mess for three weeks is a lot easier to live with than several large messes over several months.

Also, doing the kitchen first did a couple of things: first, it claimed the space as hers. Until it was gutted, it wasn’t my grandmother’s kitchen, it was the one my great-grandmother installed. My grandmother might be the owner in law of the house, but the true owners were my great-parents, her parents, and until the house is brought back to its best, it will continue to remind her of them. (My great-grandmother died in 1999.) The kitchen is the heart of the house, so it needed to have the first transformation. Further, very little in there worked anymore. The inbound water system was having loads of problems, the dishwasher had gone beyond last legs, and the fridge needs its own power plant. Only the stove was in good shape, and it’s new. Worse, over the winter, while she was in Florida, an animal got in the house and threw the mother of all frat parties. It broke the kitchen window (either getting out or in) put a hole in the ceiling, and pretty much trashed everything.

So it was time.

After we got back from Ohio and got the stuff out of the truck and into the house came demolition. The kitchen had to be gutted before anything went in, because we were going back to hard-surface floors and painting as well as getting rid of the old cabinets. Second snag — inbound water. After 128 years, the plumbing has gone through at least three different phases. I’m not sure when the house was originally plumbed (I know my great-great-grandmother was alive) but there was a radiator system until the 1980s, and at some point, either galvanized pipe was grafted into the copper system or copper was grafted into the galvanized system. Either way, that is a big problem. Water pipes must be either copper or galvanized, not a mix. When they’re mixed, this causes an electrical current to run through the pipes, causing corrosion and eventually blocking the pipes with a black crud. It also corrodes the connections, especially the shutoff valves. The shut-off valves in many places were so corroded they were impossible to turn, or if they turned, they didn’t actually shut off the water. Also, we had pipes running in the most illogical ways (like the outside water went through the water softener instead of coming directly off the well — yeah, pouring salt outside is going to do the ground a great deal of good) and just a lot of legacy problems.

Worse, I couldn’t take the kitchen pipes out — everything in there was so corroded that nothing could be turned off. Further, at some point, my great-grandfather installed a tap directly from the well to the kitchen sink. (I don’t know why — it wasn’t in case the power went out because the well is on a pump.) That faucet didn’t even HAVE a shut off valve. That meant it was time to fix the water problem. Last July (2009) when my grandfather (not married to my grandmother since the 1960s) died, my cousin Chris and I went into the basement and he mentioned that the simplest way to fix the system would be to run a pex (flexible plastic tubing) system. It’s not a difficult job — other than climbing around in the basement, which is nasty and filthy and contains a botulism factory in the form of my great-great-grandmother’s home canned goods — but it needed to be done. We also had a water line running to the old refrigerator’s ice maker (again, no shutoff valve) that hadn’t been used since the 80s — the water is not even good enough for ice. That’s when we turned to Ron.

Ron is the savior of this house, and the little house on the property. He renovated the little house after the subflooring went out, replaced the piping and made it a wonderful showplace. He’s been doing the same on the big house a bit at a time — replacing windows, doors and making it weather-tight and he will eventually do the plaster and insulation work. Ron, like many people, is arachnophobic (and the basement is where spiders go to party) so he got his son-in-law, Andy, to do the plumbing work. Andy was absolutely fabulous and replaced the plumbing in 2 days while I finished demolition and got the flooring down. More importantly, Ron lent me his tools — an entire trailer’s worth of power tools. I’m a little in love with this man’s knowledge and generosity. (I made him cream cheese brownies with nuts as a thank you, the first thing cooked in the completed kitchen… and yes, he got paid, too.)

At the same time, Ron was demolishing the garage. The garage has been in rough shape for several years — remember, 40 years of deferred maintenance — and the roof was pretty much done. The creatures who threw the frat party in the kitchen had been making a home for themselves in the garage for a while (at very least it was a raccoon and her kits — Ron found a mama and three kits when he got the roof off), leaving a 2′ x’ 6′ ish sized hole in the roof. All of the insulation was down, and it was just in bad shape.

Andy got the water system in on the 26th of April, by which time I had laid the new laminate floor. Here’s my only criticism for IKEA — Tundra flooring is a pain in the ass. It’s not the world’s highest end laminate (really, at $1.25 a square foot I wasn’t expecting it to be and to be honest, I know this house WAY too well — sometime in the next decade, something will happen and we will have to replace the flooring despite all the work we’re doing) but I’ve worked with similarly priced laminate flooring before, and Tundra is harder to work with than those. It chips very easily (and I’m little — I’m more a leverage girl than brute force — I don’t really whang away on things) and getting it to click into place and not shift is fiddly. However, I got it done, down and secure, and that was the most important thing.

Then came construction — with the water system in place, we were doing okay. I did have to give myself an extra week, but I’d been thinking I’d have to do that since before I left Colorado on April 13. Also, upcoming was my break.

I love industrial music, and an artist I’ve been wanting to see — Assemblage 23 — was going to be in Indianapolis on April 29. There was a very good chance I was not going to get to see the date in Denver (May 11; I was in too much residual pain to go, and it was snowing here). Plus, I knew that by then, I would be going stir-crazy. Look, I love my grandmother quite a lot, but Indiana is not my place and her generation are not my people. I am a liberal, a feminist, a technophile and a strict anti-racist; Central Indiana is the type of place where women not only let men drive their cars (I can’t imagine this — maybe a partner with whom I share other financial ties, but not a mere boyfriend), it is expected and normal and a woman driving with a man in the car is abnormal; Tea Partiers are thick on the ground and casual racism is rampant. (This last bothers me a lot.) I can only stand so much breakfast at 10, lunch at 1, supper at 5, bedtime at 8 and Food Network and HGTV (Gran’s an addict) before getting just a wee bit… crazy. Besides, dancing is how I blow off stress, and the farm house, my grandmother and just being in Tea Party Central Indiana (of course I had to be there during the Republican Primary race, so every other commercial on TV — another issue: I don’t do television, my grandmother has it on all the time — was some moron spouting off about economics he doesn’t understand and advocating policies that will just make Indiana — already in dire financial trouble — that much worse off) was bringing it in buckets and crates.

Further, I was hurting. I don’t know what I did, but for the most part, I’m pretty desk-bound. I am not a contractor, and I work more with my brain than with my brawn. My arms were (and still are, though improving) hurting, and I think I pinched a nerve in my neck. I needed to take a day and a half and go dance, get a massage (thank you, Chelsea, at the Carmel, IN Massage Envy — I will be grateful to you until the day I die, and I hope my tip reflected that) and have three long, hot soaks in the hotel’s hot tub. I also wanted food. Again, not to criticize other people’s choices, but Howard County kind of sucks for good, fresh, flavorful food. They do things to pork tenderloins that should illegal, deep-fry almost everything, and salads are pretty much iceberg lettuce… plus the stuff I tend to live on — Indian, good Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese, Mexican and organic nouvelle — not to be had at all.

So by the 29th of April, when I had all the base cabinets in and most of the counter-top, the sink installed and the inbound and outbound water for the sink done (and I wish I could find my picture of the outbound plumbing; I did a beautiful job) I was ready for a break. I rented a car, drove to Indianapolis, had my massage and my first hot tub session, got lamb saag for supper (Thank you, Taj of India, you live up to your name), then went to the concert.

Which was… different. I am so used to the Denver Goth/Industrial scene that seeing another scene was refreshing. I fully expect Denver’s Cervantes Ballroom was packed when Assemblage 23 played, and I would have had to be there an hour early in line. In Indiana, I made sure I arrived on time (tix said doors open at 8, concert at 9) and… there were four people there. Doors weren’t quite open. The venue was Indianapolis’ drag club, in an old, wood-frame and brick building in a residential neighborhood. (Talbott Street night club). It’s a GREAT venue, as it happens — wood floors are perfect for dancing, and the acoustics are stellar — but there were maybe 200-300 people in a place that could hold 1000. This was good for dancing, too — big personal bubble — but I have definitely gotten used to dancing in Denver. Here, you have to pretty much hold your own space — feet stay in a 18″ square — while there, with that much space, people truly let go. Assemblage 23 probably lost money on the gig, but it was one of the best concerts I’ve been to. (I can’t imagine being gay or transvestite in Indiana — since the notion of non-gendered bathrooms seemed to bother many of the concert-goers (here, they’re just part of the scenery) and given the neighborhood, it must be like going back in time thirty years and not just fearing being bashed, but having to expect it and live with the dread. But the fact that the club exists, and is making money, and surviving is a good sign, at least for Indianapolis’ tolerance levels.)

Two G&Ts and four hours of dancing really helped — my arms stopped hurting. I met several people — another oddity: the Indy scene is pretty much incestuous; everybody knows everyone else, even if they live in different parts of the state, but they were very kind and friendly to an outsider — and went back to my second hot tub. (I splurged on a room with one. Again, best money ever spent.)

The next morning, I got my third tub (oh, yes, I profligately wasted water) and vietnamese rice noodle rolls and a shrimp rice noodle bowl and went back to the farm, ready and able to go back to work.

(Another thing that freaks me about that area of the country — here, I drive an hour to go to the really good fabric store or a few other places in south Denver every other month or so, when I need to stock up on something, and my best friend and I drive 30-45 minutes for a club or event all the time, winter and summer. There, the very notion of driving to Indianapolis (45 miles and 50 minutes away) is an EVENT, not to be considered lightly. It’s like they’re just past horse and buggy days. And if I lived there, I’d probably not think too hard about driving to Chicago a couple times a year for cultural stuff… but that’s almost unthinkable. Distances are really different in different parts of the country, and it seems to be cultural, not because of demographics or economics or local conditions.)

Over the 30th, first and second of May, I finished the drawers and got the wall cabinets started, but the microwave made me its bitch. Even new ones are heavy, and mounting it turned into hell. Plus, the electrical issue — it took me forever to find the right breaker. Now, here’s one of my oddities. I hate hardwiring. I think everything — EVERYTHING, including light switches and wall/ceiling mounted lamps — should have a plug. I put a plug on the dishwasher and on the wire running out of the wall. To me, this makes sense — if you have to service the dishwasher, isn’t it more logical to unplug it than to cut the power to the whole room? Same for the microwave. Plus it makes it a lot easier to change things out later if you want or need. But the house disagreed — it’s always been hardwired. Well, now it’s not. As far as my construction is concerned, everything is modular and removable — including each cabinet. Ten screws (into the countertops or walls and those connecting the sides) and any single piece will come out and can be replaced.

As far as I can tell, my great-uncle Elvin did a lot of the wiring. He was an electrical engineer, which is great, except that he was an electrical engineer, and sometimes he went for theory instead of practical.

We had really variable weather the entire time I was there — it never froze, but it got into the 40s several nights, and up into the eighties with high humidity during the days, and the wind just doesn’t let up out in the plains. (We need a wind generator. Seriously, we’d make a mint.) Several tornado watches but no warnings, and weird thunderstorms. (Thunder storms at 3 AM? That’s odd for me. In Colorado, we get thunder in the afternoons, after the sun has heated up the earth.) Sunday the 2nd I was working on putting together wall cabinets so Ron could help me hang the heavy ones and the microwave on Monday (Anything boys can do, I can do (better) but for some things, even I need four hands) when the wind picked up. I’d gone out to move some of the excess cardboard (warning: if you’re thinking of doing an IKEA reno — you will have enough cardboard to fill a dumpster. Or make a great bonfire. And if you don’t have easy access to recycling facilities, this can get onerous) because I didn’t want the wind catching it, and I had to LEAN into the wind to take a step. And I’m no waif…

I went back inside and a few minutes later, the power flickered just a little… nothing major (we didn’t actually lose power until the night of the 6th). But a few minutes later, I looked outside and saw that the garage (already lacking a roof because Ron had removed it) was no longer exactly where it was supposed to be. At that point, I ran outside in the rain and moved the car so it was in a clear field — my grandmother’s car being the only transportation we had, and she not ready to trade it in — or have it totaled — quite yet.

We were getting 60 MPH winds, with no real windbreak. (The granaries are round — the wind goes right around them.) Up here in Colorado, 60 MPH is nothing. We get them regularly, and they might break off a branch or two, but they’re not that bad. We just have less air, and air density is a real factor. But Indiana’s not too far above sea level, and wind that fast packs a punch. Let me be clear — this was straight wind, not tornado wind. It was just whipping off the plains, not spiraling.

We got lucky. As rickety as that garage was, if the roof had been on (and mostly intact) that wind would have picked it up and thrown it… probably 15-20 feet, where it would have landed on the car. As it was, the wind moved the garage walls about 10 feet off their foundation, twisted it pretty badly, and made salvaging the walls impossible. That means my grandmother will have to put another building in its place (probably a prefab of some sort, either metal or frame) but not right now.

It amazed Ron when he came out on Monday (the third) and we picked up the debris. There was siding as far as our farm manager’s barn (close to a quarter mile) as well as in the fields, but my childhood concrete donkey survived. Donkey’s been through a lot, and Ron promised to move him when he can get to him. Then Ron and I got the microwave installed and the countertops cut. (I hate table saws. I don’t know why. Not much more fond of circular saws. I LOVE compound miter saws and have no problems with them — even if they are high speed whirling guillotines of death — but the others… no. I’d rather not. Thanks.) And hit snag three.

I was scrupulous about setting my levels and measurements. The countertops at the junction should have met, and according to the levels and everything else, there’s no reason they shouldn’t, but they refused. This meant more fiddling, shimming and kludging. Also, the IKEA planning software wouldn’t let me put a 12 inch base cabinet (or use a 36 instead of a 24) in a space with 15 spare inches. (I don’t know why.) So I ended up needing to fill a 15 inch space. It also denied me a 12 inch space by the north window. (Things to know when doing this in a space where I can work on the design at the same time I’m in the kitchen, for future reference.)

Thus, the open shelving in the corner and the deco shelf by the window. The former is actually a 15 inch wall cabinet (and it fits there beautifully), and the countertops are tied in on top. The deco shelf is just a 29 inch bookcase (not as well made as IKEA, sorry to say) from the local hardware store. The important part is they work, and tie into everything else, even if they’re not what I would have done by preference.

By this point, we’re in the home stretch — I still had to reset tile on the backsplash — something I’d never done, and I did end up setting three crooked, or they sagged — and getting the vent moved.

The kitchen had a furnace vent in the floor by the east wall — this vent may be why there were no cabinets on the east wall. I knew I could divert the airflow with sufficient aluminum tape, a vent boot and vent board (it’s a corrugated cardboard covered with aluminum that’s rated against fire… and is highly reflective –annoying in morning sunlight). The only problem? The legs of the cabinets were just in the way. However, in getting everything level, the toe kick boards (4 inches wide) were too narrow to completely fill the toe-kick space. The floor on the north side is about an inch higher than the floor on the south side of the kitchen, and to make sure the countertops were level, I had to let the base cabinets be a little taller on the south side. That meant I had air venting space. Admittedly now the heating will be more of the radiant type — no blasts of hot air — than vented, but the kitchen will still be warm. Instead of putting in a register, I just drilled holes in the toe kick and diverted the vent. Problem solved.

I replaced the bar with the butcher block countertop (I’d wanted to cut it down to counter height, but there were live wires in there, and I didn’t know where they went or what they did, so that killed that plan) and cantilevered it. I would have liked to round off the corners, but I didn’t have the right tools to do it and cutting that butcher block was tough — I couldn’t have gotten the corners right with a jig saw.

My grandmother had some specific design elements she wanted (remember, she’s an HGTV addict, and she’s watched a lot of it over the years). She wanted a plate rack (I nixed that with the Billy book case, which should have had glass doors, but they were out of stock) and an appliance garage and a shelf for her cookie sheets. The appliance garage ended up being trivial — just two pieces of melamine cut to size, fixed with angle brackets and trimmed. The door however, could have been a deal breaker. Appliance garages often have a tambor door — like on a rolltop desk. These are expensive — $150 to $300 for a single door. We had a extra fifteen inch door (because we couldn’t put the cabinet over the refrigerator — the space between the top of the fridge and the soffit was only 13 inches, and we needed 15, but we wanted the fridge more than the cabinet space we can’t reach anyway) and hinges, so that became the door. The shelf for the cookie sheets also ended up being trivial — another piece of melamine, cut to fit, and fixed with angle brackets between the wall and the wall cabinet.

Final touches — finished the toekicks, grouted the backsplash (and it’s amazing what fresh, white grout will do) and hung towel bars (actually 9″ Lansa cabinet handles) and did the trim. Then I put everything away… (A trip in itself.)


And then I came home, to air I don’t have to chew before I breathe, and kitties and my wonderful C.

Lessons learned:

The internet was my saving grace: my grandmother finally has DSL (as of the 29th of April) after years of 28.8 dialup. I took my iPad and used it almost continually while I was there; it let me look things up, calculate, investigate problems and come up with creative solutions. I also watched/listened to almost two seasons of Buffy via Netflix streaming on it — that kept my sanity in the black. (General TV drives me crazy — I hate commercials.) I also installed a wireless network for her; while she doesn’t surf much, better she have the ability to do so wherever she wants in the house than confined to a desk. (She does have a laptop after all.)

Measure six times, make a template, then cut. My first construction projects were in fabric, not wood, so for me, a template or pattern feels natural. Whenever I had a hole I needed to drill precisely, I used a template — drawer pulls, knob holes, the water system. (I had plenty of cardboard…) It made my life a lot easier and the holes were where I wanted them instead of all over the place. The one time I didn’t do this — in mounting the microwave — we did it Ron’s way, which was by measurement. We ended up with extra holes. (Not that I’m complaining.)

Once again, my Black and Decker x1200 cordless drill was invaluable. It’s not very heavy (and there are things it doesn’t like to do like drill through stainless steel) but it was perfect for what I needed it to do most of the time.

A devilled egg tray or ice cube tray is essential for keeping track of small parts.

If you have a metal pipe system, check it now. A Pex system can be had for about a grand, and it is much easier to work with. Plus, copper is worth money. Recycle it.

Love your level. (And I don’t mean the vodka, though that’s nice, too.)

Have no expectations about level, plumb or true. (This is true in my 10 year old house, too.) For that matter, have no expectations. Measure six times, cut once.

Caulk covers a multitude of melamine sins.

Find someone at your local hardware store who knows what she’s talking about and get her schedule. Go there when she’s working. Send her flowers. (Mine was Hester, at Menard’s, in Kokomo. She’s absolutely fabulous.)

Clean up every night. It’s much easier to start working in the morning if you have swept the floor and put away your tools. Charge your batteries every night.

Tape measures, utility knives and pencils live on your person. Also, use good pencils. I tend to use one of two options: at home, I use a set of colored pencils — they come off with a magic eraser and the colors make it easier to know if you have to change your mind about something, but in Indiana, I used a cretacolor solid graphite pencil. It lived in my bun like a hair stick. Have a notebook, or a chalk or white board handy for notes. Use it.

Buy lots of blue tape. Use it for everything — not just paint. It will hold on your templates, keep your faucet in position while you get the fittings positioned, pick up sawdust before you treat the countertops, mark straight cutting lines and keep melamine from cracking when cut or drilled.

Make sure your hammer fits in your hand, then never let anyone else use it. Mine is a 5 ounce claw hammer — what some people call a tack hammer. An 8 ounce hammer (standard size) is just too big for me and exhausts me, but my 5 ounce is perfect. Same with other tools — nobody uses my drill, for example. Selfish, yes, but tools become extensions of your body when you work with them, and losing one is an amputation.

Give yourself extra time. I would have liked an extra day or two to finish some little bits and clean up the rest of the house a bit more, but I’d already delayed my return by a week.

Magic erasers are your friends, too — they’ll erase most marking mistakes. For things like construction adhesive and caulk, razor blades.

Change your utility knife blades every day. They get dull fast, they’re cheap and easy to replace.

Behandla countertop treatment gets sticky if the ambient humidity is too high, especially on the last coat. Follow all the directions precisely, and wipe the excess off thoroughly.

Label your breaker box.

Keep rags handy, both wet and dry. Wet cleans up paint, pencil, or sawdust, dry for everything.

Have help, if you can delegate. (I kind of suck at it.) Lift with your knees, not your back, get plenty of rest and eat and drink whenever you’re getting cranky.

The IKEA planning tool is good, but somewhat unreliable. Be aware, and sometimes, it’s okay to trust your own judgement over the tool’s.

Have plenty of trash and recycle space available. If you can, get your old stuff to a reuse (ours wasn’t worth doing that with, even if Kokomo had such a creature, which it doesn’t.)

To see pictures, visit the album.