Makeover For a Modest Kitchen

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How we achieved a bungalow-era kitchen— on a budget, and without sacrificing authenticity or style.

By Donna Pizzi | Photographs by Blackstone Edge Studios

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As busy owners of a boutique advertising agency called Blackstone Edge (we also team up as writer/stylist/photographer), we’d been assigned to shoot several houses in Portland, Oregon, back in 1995.

The trip inspired my husband, Philip Clayton–Thompson, and me to leave Los Angeles, where we’d also worked in the film business for ten years, and head for the Pacific Northwest. Our real-estate agent showed us this 1918 Craftsman. It was love at first sight, but what clinched it was a quaint kitchen and tall cupboards that really stole my heart.

Fast-forward 20 years. The cheap vinyl flooring had chipped away at the doorways, heel dents were becoming gaping holes. The laminate countertops and backsplash had blistered, and were stained and moldy near the stainless steel sink. Appliances were dated and rundown. The stove had only three working burners. I now hated the kitchen I’d once loved.

The Work Begins
While I was away at a conference last year, Philip stripped the dated wallpaper, sanded, plastered, and primed the ceiling, walls, and cupboards inside and out. (He’d done a stint plastering and painting the homes of high-profile clients in New York City.) The project languished as assignments picked up. A few months later, Philip hired an assistant painter, and together we emptied the cupboards, pulled off 20-year-old shelf lining, and washed everything down. I chose the color scheme: off-white cupboards to match the rest of the trim in the house, and yellow walls that flowed nicely from the lime, turquoise, and grey walls in the adjoining living and dining rooms. Painting took several days.

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The Floor
Removing the 1970s vinyl flooring that was littered with gashes, heel punctures, and enormous wear was physically taxing. We hired a handyman who tried several methods, but after watching a YouTube video, he and I wound up using heat lamps to soften the sheet flooring, which we could then peel away. Our pro Marmoleum floor installer, Matthew Faulkner, used a floor sander to knock down the high spots in the wood flooring before installing the 5-ply Baltic Birch ¼" underlayment, which he then leveled with Ardex SD-F, a Portland cement-based product. In the basement, he also repaired the creaking floorboards by fastening the warped boards to the joist with large screws. We’d chosen the Marmoleum known as ‘Waving Wheat’, so Matthew had to lay the flooring so that its striated lines were straight going from dining room to mudroom and basement.

Countertop & Backsplash
Having photographed many gorgeous kitchens in our time, we never thought we could afford beautiful countertops like the ones we had seen in other historic homes. Our client Rick Canfield, of Alpha StoneWorks, for whom we’d built a new website, convinced us that it was affordable. In a marked-down remnant stack, we found a speckled quartz that married well with our color scheme. Once it was installed, the countertop made the whole kitchen sparkle.

As a former New Yorker, I dreamed of replacing the ugly laminate backsplash with subway tile, as a kind of sense memory of the years I spent in Manhattan. When the laminate was removed from the backsplash, the old wood-lath and plaster wall lost patches of plaster, making it very uneven.

“That’s why,” Philip explains, “we hired a proficient tile person familiar with old houses, and who had some plumbing capabilities. Over a period of five days, it was necessary to undo and reconnect the plumbing several times. You don’t want to be calling in a plumber for that.” The subway tile is a pillow-edge version from Lowes. Stove and fridge are by Whirlpool.

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Finishing Touches
With new appliances in place, and our 1950s repurposed island painted a dark brownish green (‘Nightfall’ by Miller Paint) to pick up on the tile-grout color, the kitchen looked so period perfect, we decided to get a smaller microwave oven and relegate it to the mudroom. Only the toaster, electric teakettle, and paper-towel holder sit on the countertops. Looking back, I think we used to clutter up our old counters just to hide their condition. Now we relish the clean lines and keep it looking neat. And what a joy it is again to cook!

Notes on Installing Countertops

Because we were keeping the original cabinets, we were bound to the shallower depth of the countertops as well as the placement of the faucet. Here are some tips on working with an installer:

  • Verify that the company is accustomed to working in old houses with respect. You don’t want someone who tells you to tear out the old cabinets to go standard.
  • On the day the template is to be drawn, remove everything from countertops.
  • Confirm that the countertop company craftspeople are able and willing to take out existing countertops and remove the sink on installation day, if necessary.
  • Open a clear path from the house entry to the kitchen. Take every-thing out of lower cabinets because they will need a cleaning after the top is installed.
  • Ask if the workers can temporarily re-install plumbing, until the backsplash is completed. Be on hand on installation day, as questions will arise.

Five Ways to Save Money

1. Keep the Old Cabinets. Our kitchen cabinets got a facelift, so we “paid” in labor rather than shelling out cash for new cabinetwork. When you take the doors off to sand and paint them, remember to number them! It’s best if you can reuse the original hinges. Note that after you strip paint layers from the hinges, the doors close differently. You may need a carpenter to reinstall them, or at least give you some instruction.

2. Reuse the Hardware. We kept the old hinges, dipping them in tea overnight to lend patina, and then spraying them with bronze paint, in keeping with our hammered handles. The handles were cleaned with Brasso. Keeping the old hardware means using the same holes in the wood, a great timesaver. New magnetic latches keep doors tightly closed.

3. Don't Move the Plumbing. In our case, the narrow counter prohibited putting the faucet anywhere but the backsplash wall, so we weren’t tempted to incur big plumbing costs by moving pipes. We found a vintage-style faucet at a restaurant supplier at a close-to-wholesale price.

4. Embrace Linoleum. Our Marmoleum floor is period-perfect, easy to maintain, and cheaper than tile. Ours came through a discount flooring supplier. We strongly suggest you budget for a professional installation.

5. Buy Remnants.For our countertops, we found a quartz remnant at Alpha StoneWorks, a local supplier. It was relatively inexpensive, and is scratch-resistant and easier to maintain than marble.