Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lightswitches & Outlet Covers

Our downstairs is covered with these light switches- they are some kind of metal, very ornate, and kind of cool. It would be a shame to replace them with something completely new, but the brassy color kind of irks me. So, this weekend's easy project was to just spray paint them all.

the before: a brassy, ornate lightswitch

Step 1. Remove all the switches and plates.
This is super quick with a flat-head screwdriver. I just ran around the house collecting all the lightswitches and outlet covers and brought them to the basement.  I laid the outlet covers on a big plastic bag, and created a stand for the screws with a spare piece of cardboard.

all of the outlets and switches on a big plastic bag in the basement

the screws in their cardboard stand

Step 2. Spray.
Using a can of oil-rubbed bronze spray paint, I sprayed lightly and quickly to cover them all. Because of the ornate 3-d-ness, I made sure to move around and get at them from all angles.  The screws got a very light dusting so they matched, but the screw groove still worked.

outlets get a coat of paint

screws get a light coat of paint

Step 3. Replace.
After drying for a couple hours, I replaced them all from whence they came. Super quick and easy!

the after: a new lightswitch cover in place

one of the new outlet covers on a dark outlet

another outlet cover on an almond outlet 

Ok, so it's a small improvement. All of the downstairs outlets are now the same and they all match the same metal as the new downstairs lights and doorknobs. I like that this project kept the character of the old house, but modernized it a bit.  Of course, as is true with every project, instead of feeling finished, this project feels only half-done. I would love to switch out all the almond-colored outlets for the darker ones downstairs so they blend in with the wood trim, and switch everything upstairs to new white outlets and covers-- but we'll leave that for another day.  

Total time = 4 hours
Active time = 1 hour
Total cost = $7

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Wall Art Upgrades: Travel Pictures

I've been more focused on improving the functionality of the house since we moved in- adding curtains to reduce the excessive sunlight and heat, getting a bigger table that can fit our guests, making bookcases and shelves to hold and organize our piles of stuff. Slowly, but surely, the house is coming along and getting furnished and functional, but it still feels somewhat cold and impersonal.

a blank-looking living room 

the empty entryway

An easy trick I learned long ago was to print off travel pictures and put them in simple frames. I think it's awesome for a couple reasons:
  1. Generally, spaces look more complete when there are things on the walls.
  2. My entire family likes to travel and has been to some great places, so we've got lots of interesting options to choose from.
  3. A collection of simple frames helps group smaller pictures to cover a larger space.
  4. When you post pictures from your own travels it reminds you of being on vacation, and 
  5. Art is expensive, but putting up your own pictures is really cheap; you can get a decent frame for less than $20 and print for a few bucks at most.

So I've been meaning to put up some additional pics at home for a while. The reason this project has taken so long to do was because all of my pictures were on an old computer. I finally got around to turning it on, and discovered that it could no longer connect to the internet (no emailing or uploading) and we had no hardware to get the pics off. After a bit of poking around and getting annoyed, I finally ran over to the nearest office store to get a really big thumb drive, and moved all the pics over to my new computer. (lesson learned- move everything as soon as you get new technology).

Then it was as easy as picking my favorites, doing a little cropping and retouching, and uploading them to cvs to print. I grabbed a couple new frames from Target- I really like theirs because they are simple and make it feel like a gallery. Then it was a quick project to pop in the new pictures, hammer in some hangers, and stick them on the wall. The limitation of our local cvs store is that it only prints as big as 8x10 - which is why we have quite a few of that sized frame around the house. I tend to group by color.

new black and white group of cool carved things from our trips to Cambodia & Spain in the living room

it's nice when the art covers the same distance as the thing below it- but this just makes the couch look crappy.

a blue-themed group in the entryway featuring:
 Grandpa's picture of Greenland, my brother's picture of Namibia, and mine of Norway.
Go family, go!

two new pics in the dining room from a trip with my mom to Mexico

a new one for the fireplace room from Spain

and another for the fireplace room from Italy. 

closeup of the fireplace room and my grandfather's belt buckle
So- maybe that's enough travel pics for now. But I'm generally pleased with the new stuff up on the walls. It's a small project, but it makes a big difference. Combined with the plants and new lights, the first floor is really feeling a lot nicer, and a lot more like ours. If only we could do something about the basement and the kitchen...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


I like houseplants- they are a nice way to make a room feel more lively and filter the air. We didn't have space for them at the old condo, so we didn't bring any into the house with us. For our wedding, we had three orchids as decorations that have been sitting sadly in the greenroom. Because they're wedding-related, I feel extra pressure to keep them alive. 

unhappy orchids.

check out the overflowing roots trying to break free

and sad yellow leaves. 

So I finally decided to help them out. I ordered orchid soil from amazon, and it just arrived.  I did some googling to figure out how to replant, and it seemed like an easy Saturday afternoon kind of project.

Step 1.  Remove them from their pots and potting stuff. 
This was a little tricky to do gently without ripping off roots, but mostly they just shake free. 

Step 2.  Soak.
This step helps to soften up the roots so that they will bend more easily. I left them all in warm water for an hour or two. 

orchid bath in a spare trashcan full of warm water

Step 3. Cut off dead roots.
Healthy roots are white or green and solid, while dead roots are brown and flimsy.  Sadly, most of the roots were dead. I carefully cut them loose with a pair of scissors.

Step 4. Gently put in container and fill with new soil. 
I carefully bent the remaining roots into the containers, then placed the orchid soil around them. The ones that were underwater were definitely more pliable than ones that were above the water.

happier plant gets some new soil. 

Step 5. Hope for the best.
The newly potted orchids all seem much happier. I'm just hoping this will be enough to turn them around.

happier orchids.

So, while we're on the topic, I decided to add some new plants to the mix. My goal is to have one in every room. I just have to be careful because both cats are big fans of climbing up, chewing on, and peeing in plants- so I can only use plants that are up off the floor. Light is also tricky since we have several rooms that get hardly any light and several that get way too much. Apparently NASA did a study on the best indoor plants for air quality, and these guys were all on it:

new ivy in the green room

a peace lily for the dining room

and our new golden pothos moves to the living room.

A good start- beginning to feel a bit more like spring. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

New Lights for the First Floor

Ever since we moved in, the lights on the first floor have bothered me. Generally, they are way too shiney and bright for my taste. The dining room chandelier is massive and bright chrome with odd little plastic ball things. The fireplace room and the entryway both have the same brassy glassy fixture. All of them are generally unattractive when turned off, and cast really ugly light when turned on. So replacing them has been on the to-do list for a while.

Bright shiney chandelier

brassy glassy in fireplace room

another brassy glassy in the entryway

to make it worse- from my spot on the couch I can see all three at once.
closeups- so big and bright.

brassy and twirly. Cringe.

So- amazingly- for Christmas this year, my mother in law gave us a new chandelier for the dining room. This was an awesome gift for a couple reasons:
  1. The dining room is looking awesome now that we have all the new furniture, so upgrading the lighting will complete one fantastic room. [We still need a rug and some curtains, but this will make it functional and very close to fully finished.]
  2. This room will now be furnished 100% with gifts from our parents, which is kind of cool.
  3. She gave us more than enough to cover the chandelier, plus two more lights. So we can actually fix all three of the horrible offenders at once.

We shopped around a bit online, and were overwhelmed by the thousands of options. It took us a while to narrow down the many many options that are out there (which is why it's now March and we're finally getting to this). We had a hard time agreeing to something that was simple, elegant and timeless, but not "boring". We finally found a chandelier we both liked, and then grabbed a semi-flush mount for the fireplace room and a dangly one for the entry from the same collection. The collection also has a bigger pendant that I'd like to put over the stairs, and some smaller pendants that could go in the kitchen eventually, and then all the lights would be from the same collection and tie together nicely. We ordered the three, they arrived swiftly, and we got to work.

Switching out a light is easy generally, and basically the same process as switching out an outlet. The thing that makes it more difficult is the weight of the fixture, and the fact that you're installing it above your head while on a ladder or chair. We started out with the smallest one and worked our way up to the chandelier.

Step 1. Turn off the circuit breaker & light switch.
This is really important, so I'm making it its own step.

Step 2. Remove old light.
The light is just held in place with a couple screws. Once they are removed, you just have to untwist the wires to disconnect it entirely. This is an easy step- the important part is just keeping track of the old wires for the next step. It's also definitely a two-man job, since you need someone to hold the weight of the fixture while the other person messes with the wires. We took turns so our arms wouldn't fall asleep.

Step 3. Attach new light to the same wires the old one used.
In old houses, the old wires never look like the instructions drawing- so the important thing is just to repeat whatever the previous light had going on. If the old one worked, then the new one will.

Step 4. Attach new light to box.
Generally also easy, but definitely requires two people and ladders so you can see. The other trick is getting enough light to see- since all the outlets in the room are probably off at this point. We have trusty camping headlamps that work great.

Step 5. Turn on circuit breaker.
So this was the point where our easy weekend project took a bit of a turn. All three of our new fixtures said they needed 100 watt bulbs, so I ran over the store and dutifully picked up a bunch of 100-watt bulbs before we got started. Once the new fixture was installed and turned on with the new bulbs, we clearly had a problem.

tanning salon.

Step 6. Rethink bulbs.
After a bit of googling, we discovered that lamps are rated for the highest wattage light bulb they can handle, but they can (and probably should) use much lower watt bulbs (apparently it creates a fire risk to use higher wattage bulbs, so don't do that). I haven't really paid a lot of attention to light bulbs in the past, usually just grabbing whatever was at the store, so I didn't have a good sense of what would look good.

So, at this point, we pilfered all the light bulbs from the rest of the house to try them out.  We had a bunch that were 40 watt (these are all CFLs actually, so I'm using their watt equivalents), and a bunch that were 75 watts. We also had some that were "soft white" colored and others that were "reveal" colored. We took the time to try out the options and decided that we liked soft white better, but weren't in agreement about the brightness. I prefer the 40 watts, while the husband likes more light. So we ran back to the store to return the 100 watters and buy a bunch of new 40 and 60 watters, and agreed to let this room be brighter (for now) and the entryway to be dimmer. Also, because we are using CFL bulbs, we can't use a dimmer. For the dining room which has a dimmer, we bought halogen lights because they can be dimmed.   

75 watt - reveal color
Step 7. Repeat.
It was easy enough to then move into the entryway and tackle that room, but it took longer for us to muster the strength to do the dining room (the heavier it is, the more of a pain). We finally got around to it, and now everything is done. The only remaining task is to put up the old lights on craigslist and hopefully get some dough back.

new fireplace room semi-flush mount

Fireplace room (maybe still too bright?)

entryway light

Entryway with new dangly fixture

new chandelier

dining room looking good
Not only do all three rooms look much nicer when the lights are off - they look infinitely better when the lights are on. The frosted glass shades help diffuse light more than the previous clear glass did, reducing the glare. Maybe it's the lack of brass or just nicer bulbs, but the light is much less yellow than it used to be, so the rooms generally seem a little less sickly.

So, three rooms get massively more attractive. Thank you Jody!!!

Total Time = 2 weekends
Active Time = 6 hours