Kitchens are a real challenge to do-it-yourselfers. Regularly banged with heavy pots, splattered with grease, burned, scratched, splashed and dented, they need to be refreshed more often than less actively used rooms. Unfortunately, a lot of the work that needs to be done, like installing appliances or new countertops, re-tiling a backsplash or adding a decorative overhead fan hood, requires the specialized skills of professionals. Then there’s the domino effect: update one easy item, and, suddenly, the rest of the room looks old, tired and in need of a total re-do –– and the only working appliances are the microwave, the toaster and the coffee maker.
Columbia business owner and veteran kitchen do-it-yourselfer Chip Smith has been dealing with this conundrum for years. He’s renovated several kitchens, both his own and those of his children, and as his successes have stacked up, he’s developed a theory about whether to DIY or call in reinforcements. “My time is worth something,” he explains. “Spending hours and hours on a project that would only net a small savings doesn’t make sense.” Kitchen cabinets are a great example of Chip’s philosophy. Although he’s changed out dozens of cabinet doors, replacing both hinges and pulls, he won’t consider taking on drawers. “By the time the fronts need to be replaced, it’s probably time to install new hardware,” he says. “Those wonderful self-closing drawers require aligning about 20 screws with almost surgical precision. For me, that’s not worth the frustration for the relatively minor difference in cost.”
To keep from being totally intimidated, Chip suggests thinking of the kitchen not as one gigantic renovation, but as a series of smaller, more manageable projects. “Based on your interest, experience and the amount of time you want to devote, you can bite off as much as you want,” he says. “My advice is to do the things you want and have time to do, then hire someone to do what they do best and don’t look back. The money you saved doing part of it yourself will pay for the professional.”
The three projects that follow can be completed in a half day, full day and over a weekend. All will require a few days of groundwork — choosing styles and colors, measuring and purchasing the necessary tools — before the work can begin. Chip suggests making purchases during the week, when it’s more likely that the home improvement store sales people have worked as plumbers, electricians or painters and can answer questions and make recommendations. “Many have been trained by factory reps, so they really know their products,” he notes. “Add that to years of experience, and you’ve got a great resource.”
Project: Replace an old kitchen faucet with a combination faucet/sprayer
Time required: Half day
When the first one-piece kitchen faucets came out, they looked more modern than the faucets and knobs they were replacing, but since they still required a separate pull-out sprayer, they didn’t offer much more in the way of functionality. That all changed when the sprayer became part of the faucet itself. Not only did the sprayer become easier to use — those little plastic things never really worked anyway — but the single piece made room on the counter for accessories like dispensers for soap and instant hot water.
Today, faucets range from industrial-looking models with high pressure, spring-loaded sprayers to sleek, sculptural pieces that resemble works of art. “Changing out your faucet is a relatively easy way to both update and upgrade,” says Chip.
• When shopping for a new faucet, make sure the sprayer hose will be long enough to reach into the corners of your sink by bringing measurements to the store.
• Sprayer faucets may take up less room on the counter, but the tennis-ball sized weight that balances the mechanism takes up more under-counter space, so be sure it can move up and down without catching on, and potentially damaging, the water pipes. If you have any doubt, shoot a photo and take it with you to the store.
• It might be tempting to save money and purchase your new faucet online, but if it doesn’t work, it can be tough to return.
• Invest in a basin wrench, which will allow you to remove the nut that holds your current faucet in place without having to insert the entire upper half of your body under the sink.
• To prevent drips, clean all the crud off the old screws and other attachments before you install anything new. That clean seal will allow everything to fit together tightly.
• See those little black rubber circles sitting around? They’re called gaskets and their job is to create a super-tight seal between whatever it is you’re connecting. Don’t skip installing them.
• Get someone to hold the fixture in place while you screw it in.
• Prevent a pain in your back as you work under the sink cabinet by lying on a large bag of dog food, bird food, etc. It adapts to your shape, bridges the height between floor and cabinet base, is very comfortable and keeps your pillows, blankets and towels from getting dirty.
Project: Replace cabinet doors, hinges and pulls
Time required: Full day, once you have the materials
Like sprayer faucets, new cabinet doors offer more than just an aesthetic improvement. European hinges — the hidden ones that are being used in most kitchens these days — cushion the closing mechanism so doors shut gently and quietly. They’re also adjustable, allowing doors to be opened anywhere from 45 to 180 degrees. Chip says that the hardest thing about this project is ensuring symmetry. “The details can be challenging,” he says. “Knobs and doors need to be aligned exactly and the color of the doors needs to match the cabinet facing. Otherwise, the whole thing will look sloppy.”
• Before you start, make sure the facing on your existing cabinet is deep enough to hold the interior hinges.
• Spend the extra money to get the hinges pre-mounted on the doors. “It’s one of those things that’s worth every penny,” says Chip.
• Even if you’re going to paint your new doors, be sure to match the wood variety to the cabinet facing. Otherwise, the grain will look different. To be sure you’ve got a match, buy an extra door in the smallest size available (to save money, since doors are usually priced by size) and experiment with paints or stains ahead of time.
• To discourage warping and buckling, take the extra time to paint the cabinet shelves and interiors.
• Don’t skip pre-paint primer, and be sure to sand before you paint.
• Details matter. “When the directions say 11/16ths, they mean 11/16ths,” laughs Chip.
• Perfect alignment for doors without a center divide between them is easy if you follow Chip’s method. First, collect two popsicle sticks, tape, a level, a two-by-four piece of wood and a clamp. Next, clamp the two-by-four to the bottom of the cabinet and line the bottom of each door up exactly with the two-by-four. When you’re sure its level, tape the popsicle sticks to the top and bottom side of one door where the doors meet; this allows the proper space between the doors so that they open and close without touching each other. Once the doors are hung, remove the wood and sticks. Voila! Evenly hung doors with a perfectly-sized space in between.
• To make sure knobs line up on adjacent cabinet doors, use a template fashioned from a shoebox top cut diagonally into two triangles. You’ll use one template for the left-hand doors and one for the right. To use, slide the cut box top onto the door so the corner of the door fits into the corner of the box top, covering the area where you’ll eventually place the knob with the cardboard. Use a tack to push through the cardboard. Repeat on the other side. When the tacks are lined up, push just barely into the wood to mark it. The templates are now set for the remaining doors. To use, just slide the box top onto the corner and use the existing hole to mark the door. Once all the doors have been marked, screw in the knobs.
Project: Installing pre-finished hardwood floors
Time required: Weekend, once you have the materials
When Chip and Mardi, his wife, decided to put hardwood floors in the kitchen of their Lake Murray home, they chose pre-finished hardwood over classic wood that needs to be sanded, stained and sealed. “Installing traditional hardwood flooring can take up to a week, and it’s very messy,” explains Chip. “These new laminate hardwood floors look great, can be installed in a weekend and create very little mess. We’ve found they hold up well, too.”
Shopping for pre-finished floors can be tricky since quality isn’t necessarily reflected in the cost per square foot. “The type of wood used on the top layer tends to drive the price,” he says. “In most cases, you’re paying for expensive wood because you like the way it looks.” But not all the time. Look for a durable finish, preferably one with a guarantee, to keep traffic patterns from showing up in a year or two. It’s also important to invest in a plywood base since masonite or fiberboard will shrink up and crumble if it gets wet. Hardwood floors installed over concrete will need a plastic vapor barrier to keep moisture from the concrete from leaching into the wood; linoleum floors don’t need any prep, except a good cleaning.
• Buy flooring with the foam backing already attached. It’s much easier than laying down a roll of foam, which can bunch and move.
• Work with a retailer that will let you return unopened boxes of flooring, then buy more than you think you’ll need. “You will mess up,” notes Chip. “It’s a lot easier to grab a new piece of wood than to get angry.”
• Invest in an oscillating saw, which cuts straight lines with a minimum of effort and almost no sawdust.
• As you remove the each piece of moulding from the floor, number it, and write the corresponding number on the wall so you can return it to its proper place.