Bathroom renovation

As I have stated many times, we purchased out house 7 years ago from a house flipper and the quality of the work she and her contractor did was, to put it mildly, subpar. Case in point is the 2nd floor bathroom.

It looked nice-ish when be bought the house. Clean, usable, new tile and no obvious problems. But a few years of use and things fell apart. I mean that quite literally–things really did fall apart. The first sign of trouble was cracks appearing in the grout joints, followed by tiles beginning to “push out” from the wall.

That ain’t good…

The window trim in the dormer was kinda gross as well

While I had hoped to put the project off a bit, the timeline got bumped up when the tiles began to separate from the wall completely. I actually heard one fall off and land in the tub. So, demo had to begin….

Demolition revealed what I had expected. The flipper stuck ceramic tile to the plaster walls using mastic that was not suitable in wet environments. Plaster is also not a suitable substrate for a shower stall. It is clear that this tub was only ever meant to be a tub and not a shower as well. The wall beneath the tile was saturated down to the framing.

Beneath the paint and mastic was a mushy mass of old plaster and rusty corner bead.

To properly turn this into a shower/tub combo I knew I had to rebuild from the studs up with a suitable backer. Ditto for the floor which needed new tile. I took it back to bare subfloor (thankfully the cast iron closet flange was in pristine condition).

The floor was sloped so I covered the sub-floor with birch ply, Red guard waterproofing, wire mesh lathe, and then poured leveling compound. After tiling the floor I measured final heights and cut out the old plaster and replace it with a vapor barrier and 1/2 inch backer board.

Floor leveled and new backer board installed

Old medicine cabinets used to have a razor disposal slot in the back of them. When opening up the walls in an older bathroom be careful!

A common sight in older homes– a pile of used razor blades in the wall cavity below the medicine cabinet.

Because of all of the outside corners in the shower (owing to the gambrel roof) we opted for marble tile so that the color went all the way through on the exposed edge cuts. The secret to a good tile job is prep and patience. Agonize over the minute details and make your walls and floors are as flat, straight, level and plumb as possible–not always easy to do in an older home! That and a good tile saw will yield good results. Also, if you are using marble be sure and choose a thinset mortar that will not “show through” or darken the tile.

I took my time and I’m glad I did. Pasquale tried to help by removing the horseshoe spacers. Unfortunately he did so immediately after I set the tile.

I’m not a terribly experience tiler but I read a ton and asked a lot of questions at the tile store and triple checked I was using the right materials. The results exceeded my expectations. All told this project took me a month and a half of nights and weekends but moving slowly and carefully was key.

While I had it removed I also replaced all the seals and valves in the toilet.
The window was trimmed with rot proof and mildew resistant PVC and caulked and painted. I ditched the blinds in favor of privacy film.
Bath hardware by Crosswater

Very pleased indeed. The last thing I did was to install a vent fan (there was none before) in the ceiling which is vented out the roof ( I hate heights and installing the external vent in the roof was saved for last because I dreaded it). This will help with moisture problems in the winter when it is too cold to pen the bathroom window.

The two gang box to the left of the vanity was added during rough in to accommodate the outlet and the switch for the new vent fan and light combo.
The peace lily LOVES being in the shower. I restored the original 1938 bath tub using polishing compound and a buffer

Refrigerator Pickles

In my day job I’m a university professor, which means I spend a good bit of my time trying to identify plagiarism in student papers.  It is an unpleasant task, but it goes with the territory.  If I want my head to explode, I could undertake the same investigation when looking up recipes on the internet; they all seem to be just copies of each other with only slight modifications.  So I’ll give you a disclaimer: I got this recipe mostly from the internet with a few minor modification, but I cannot for the life of me detect the original source since it is replicated on at least a dozen different sites (though I suspect it may have started with Bobby Flay).  Perhaps it doesn’t even matter.  By now, the concept of refrigerator pickles has been around long enough for the copyright to lapse, or in the parlance of the pharmaceutical industry, they are now free for generic manufacturing.

I’ve made a lot of cucumber salad off the two vines I grew this summer, so it was time to make some pickles instead.


So, without further adieu, here is a tried and true recipe to use with your summer crop of cukes freely stolen from the interwebs and lightly modified to suit my taste.

Quick and Easy Refrigerator Pickles

3/4 c. white vinegar & 3/4 c. cider vinegar or some combination thereof

1/4 c. white sugar

4 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. mustard seed

1 tsp. coriander seed

1 tsp. dill seed

3/4 tsp. pepper flakes (or to taste, or omit altogether, hell, they’re your pickles)

2 c. water

2 lbs pickling cucumbers (or whatever variety you happened to have grown)

3/4 c. chopped dill

4 cloves garlic, chopped or thinly sliced


  1. In a saucepan combine the vinegar, water, and dried herbs.  Bring to a low simmer until the salt and sugar completely dissolve.  Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
  2. Cut the cucumbers as you will; slices, spears, or what have you. In a large bowl, toss the cucumbers with the dill and garlic. Place in a jar.
  3. Add the cooled vinegar solution, cover, and place in the refrigerator.  Let them sit for a day or so (if you can wait).  Can be enjoyed for about a week.


I didn’t grow pickling cukes but the regular old Burpee cukes I did grow worked just fine.  They were large so I cut them into spears and packed them into a 1/2 gallon canning jar.  I also had close to 3 pounds (2.9 to be exact), well over the 2 pounds the recipes call for but the recipes made more than enough pickling solution to cover them.  They are easy and they are delicious.

I have a friend who is a Serve Safe expert who claims that you can increase the refrigerator life of these pickles by omitting the garlic, which he claims is often the source of things like botulism.  As pickles rarely last long in this household I wasn’t too concerned.


Gardening Past and Present: A New Garden Based on Vintage Designs

When we tackled the restoration of the back yard we did not have a solid plan in place.  I had a rough idea where the hardscaping would go, but we really did not engage in much careful planning since we were most focused on removing invasives and making the ground accessible.  Now that the bulk of the hardscape is complete, we are turning our attention toward the plantings. We now think about the garden in terms of “rooms” which must simultaneously have unique characteristics in terms of plants, design, and themes but which must also fit together into a cohesive whole.  As we develop the themes for each of the rooms, we will continue to refine those areas to create unique spaces.  This means a lot of moving plants, adding plants, and taking away plants.  I’m sure that if we had hired a skilled garden designer we could have simply plopped down our plants once and for all and been done with it.  I don’t know how much fun that would be though.  I like that this garden is evolving and changing over time.  I suppose it also reflects my status as an amateur; when I get something right in the garden it is often due to experimentation or happy accident.  That’s fine–many great things have come from passionate experimentation and happy accidents.

A garden room in need of a theme.  The ramped steps to the left need some work; they will be made narrower to increase planting area.  The area looks deceptively small here.  The bed is much deeper than is apparent in this pano image.  I will remove almost all of the plants, build the soil, and replant as an heirloom flower garden.

The bottom left of the garden, the area where the steps that ascend the hill begin is in need of an overhaul.  There will be some hardscape work to be done, but nothing nearly as intensive as has been completed over the past few garden seasons.  The soil needs improvement so I will need to add substantial amounts of compost.  As far as design goes, we envisage a garden “room” that invokes or honors some of my early garden memories; my grandmother’s garden. We are early in the design phase with the idea that hardscape construction and soil amending will happen this fall and planting will be done in the spring of 2020.  Here is what the new garden design must accomplish:

  1. The plant materials must be selected from heirloom varieties that would have been common in gardens from the mid 20th century or earlier. The challenge is that many older varieties of herbaceous plants are not widely available in garden centers, so much of the plant material will need to be propagated from seed obtained by firms specializing in heirloom plants.  Thankfully there are a few of them.
  2. Though we are creating a unique room in the garden based on heirloom plants, the plant selection must still meet a couple of essential standards: they must be non-invasive, they must attract wildlife, and the majority of the plants must be native species.
  3. The layout of the new garden must invoke vernacular design from the last century which could include garden arbor, formal clipped hedges, or some other features commonly found 60 to 80 years ago.
  4. Undoubtedly this new room will have a unique feel, but it must still have continuity with the rest of the garden.

In short, the garden must pay homage to the past while fitting with the rest of the garden design and keeping to contemporary standards for ecological sensitivity.  A garden for the past and the present.

Two initial tasks then.  One, Hilary is developing plans to improve the ramped steps that currently serve as the entry to the garden.  Task number two is to research plant choices and design features from many decades ago.  I have obtained a few vintage gardening books from the 1930s through the 1950s that are a wealth of information and ideas and give me an idea of how people thought about gardens and gardening back then.

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The Better Homes and Gardens book is the newest of my historical gardening books having been published in 1951

Apparently women used to garden in dresses with full makeup and a pearl necklaces, outfits that would have impressed June Cleaver.

1950s husband: “Honey, just because you are doing manual garden labor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be wearing a nice dress with your hair and makeup done.”  1950s Wife: “If it weren’t for the Valium and whiskey sours I would have murdered you by now and buried you under the rose bushes.”

Some of the plant choices were also pretty cringe-worthy by modern ecological standards (Privet! English Ivy! Turf!), as was the generous use of pesticides (DDT!).

Nothing calms cold war anxieties like a nice flower garden.  Remember Jimmy, duck and cover! Nuclear holocaust jokes aside, that garden design is a reminiscent of a cottage style with plants leaf to leaf and stem to stem jostling for position. Most of the pictures depict more formal borders, but here and there this classic English style creeps in.

But, the images I have come across are also evocative of my earliest garden memories and the gardens quite charming with swathes of snapdragons, cone flowers, hollyhocks, bachelor’s buttons, blue bells, and foxglove.  It is hard not to be a bit nostalgic or wistful when leafing through these books (and I acknowledge that nostalgia is at least party contingent upon my white male privilege).

The borders are pretty narrow, but the climbers on the front of the house are dramatic.  The garden fits the scale of the house very well (though I’d have less turf grass), and nothing screams 1950s suburbia like a white picket fence.  I unironically love this.

Apparently there was a time in the not too distant past when people cared for and repaired their tools instead of just pitching them in the landfill and buying a new disposable POS shovel from Home Depot.  God, people were CRAZY back then.

One thing that has struck me while reading through these old gardening books is not so much the garden design (predominately formal but some cottage inspiration) but rather the very human and humane scale of the houses.  These books were meant to give gardening advice to the average suburban homeowner and so it is the average home that is depicted.  Some are classic American vernacular architecture (like a cape or colonial revival) while some are classic mid century modern forms.  In all cases, the houses are small but tidy and well balanced and welcoming unlike the post 1970s horror/ crime-against-architecture-and-humanity that is the McMansion.  We forget that in 1973 the average house size was a modest but comfortable 1,500 square feet; today that number is 2,467 square feet.  In the early 1950s it was only about a thousand square feet!  Somehow people managed to comfortably raise larger families in much less space with much less stuff.  Go figure.

Here is Better Homes and Gardens vision for the suburban oasis.  A small home based on vernacular styles with a single detached garage.  No McMansions and no snout-houses.  That said, one problem is apparent in the vintage gardening books which is the endorsement of expansive and resource intensive turf grass, a harbinger of the coming turf grass wastelands as part of the McMansion craze.  Double or triple the width of those borders and you’ll be in better shape.

This is already a fun project and I have not even dug a bit of soil yet.  The challenge will be in merging the formal features of mid century American gardens (such as clipped hedges) with the more naturalistic aesthetic we have been following thus far.  I believe we are up for such a challenge.  Stay tuned for more posts as this project moves along.

Travels in Pennsylvania

I got to spend this past week down in Pennsylvania, my home state.  The beginning of the week was spent in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania working with Phyllis Solomon, my friend, mentor and world renowned scholar.  It was a very productive few days of data analysis and writing; we also managed to submit an abstract for the American Pubic Health Association’s annual meeting.


Given how productive those few days were I felt good in spending a few days out in the country pursuing other interests.  On the long drive from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania I like to listen to audiobooks, and it was serendipitous that I happened to have selected Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.  The book nicely dovetailed with many of the things I’ve been thinking about lately, not the least of which is the importance of cultivating  high quality analog activities in a digital age that seeks to apprehend more and more of our attention.  Newport shares many of my concerns with what the constant flow of information via social media, cell phones, and email are doing to our ability to think deeply and clearly  or to engage in real human interactions.  I’ve been a fan of Cal Newport’s work for a couple of years now; Digital Minimalism is must read as far as I am concerned. Newport cites the Amish (I would also add the Old Order Mennonites) as an example of people who have a thoughtful relationship with technology.  The serendipitous part of all of this is that while in Pennsylvania my best friend Jay and I took a ride out through Lancaster (aka Amish country) to pick up a few hundred pounds of pig feed.

The Amish have had to contend with being treated as a tourist attraction, and have accommodated this perhaps out of necessity.  Surely some of their “English” neighbors have been happy to exploit the image of the quaint Amish in order to collect a few tourist dollars.  But, those of us who grew up near Amish country or had business dealings with the Amish community know how much the tourism misses the point.  The Amish are not quaint or throw backs or manifestations of a bygone era.  They are simply thoughtful and deliberate about what parts of modern life they want to adopt.  Newport makes a strong case for this in his book.  If a technology serves to make the community or the church (those things are synonymous) stronger, than it is permissible.  If it threatens the bonds of community it is not permissible.  This is what Albert Borgmann and David Strong would call “technology in the service of things.” The Amish and Mennonite are not anti-technology per se, they are just extremely deliberate in how they decide which technologies they will adopt.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of claiming that Amish communities are utopias.  To be sure, they operate by certain values that contradict many of my deeply held beliefs about education and equal rights for women.  Nevertheless, as Newport points out, there is a lesson for us in thinking about technology from the old order perspective. Does the technology reinforce your values and facilitate the activities that give your life its deepest meaning and reinforce your bonds with family and community?  In many cases the answer is probably “no,” but that has hardly impeded the growth in time we spend staring at screens or arguing on the internet.  My god, take a moment to look around the next time you go to a restaurant and count the number of people ignoring the person across from them in favor of the cold glow of a smart phone screen.

I am a man of many enthusiasms.  I love to garden and build furniture and read and write and fix my house and restore antiques and volunteer in my community and spend time with my family and so on and so forth.  I am routinely asked how I find time to do these things.  Or, people will say, “I would love to do this or that but I’m just too busy.”  Too busy doing what?  The average American now spends two hours per day staring at a smart phone screen (usually Facebook or other social media) and 4 hours per day watching television.  Thing about it: what could you do with 6 extra hours per day?  I don’t do Facebook, I watch very little television, my smart phone has been stripped down to only a few essential functions, and I spend no more than 20 minutes on Instagram. My time on Instagram is mostly dedicated to finding inspiration from other gardeners and furniture makers.  Like Newport suggests, and like the Amish and Mennonite, I have consciously chosen to be very deliberate with my use of technologies that encourage passive consumption rather than rich and meaningful engagement.  I hope this doesn’t sound self-righteous.  I have my flaws and weaknesses and tendency for self indulgence like everyone else.  But, I have taken time to think carefully about the distractions I will permit.  I’m not perfect, but I waste a hell of a lot less time now, and my life is far better for the effort.

On the farm

It is a 45 minute drive from west Philadelphia out to Worcester, PA where my best friend Jay and his family live. The farm itself dates back to 1818.  Currently, he is raising pigs, steer and chickens; one of those pigs will be mine after it has grown to butchering weight (hence the trip to Lancaster to buy feed). I’ll also be buying 1/4 of a steer.  I like to buy meat that I know was thoughtfully and humanely raised.

It is a beautiful old Pennsylvania Dutch farm.  While there, I was able to use his forge to make some hitching rings for the dairy barn at Appleton Farms where I volunteer–the dairy herd managers want them so they can tie up a dairy cow if she needs medical care or is ready for insemination.  I forged these to match one that is already in the barn.

Jay is a much better smith than I am so he did a good bit of the work and made sure I didn’t screw up the part that I worked on.

It was a great trip that gave me lots of time to think.  Jay works on the neighboring farm which dates the 18th century and was once used by Washington as a headquarters before the battle of Germantown. It is now a county historical site.  It is hard not to be contemplative when this is your daily view:

As you can see, some snow rolled in on the second day i was there.  After a few days on the farm (and with news of a snow storm barreling toward New England) it was time to head for home. I returned to Marblehead a few days ago to find my family–and plenty of projects–anxiously awaiting me.

Craftwork and Making as Antidote

I usually just write about gardening and making.  My fixation on these activities is rooted not just in “having a hobby,” but also as a push back against techno utopianism and consumerism.  I just read this article by L.M. Sacasas and it deftly articulates many of my concerns.  I’m going to take up with this issue at length in a later post, but I believe that craftwork and making are antidotes to the dominant techno-paradigm in which we live.

Happy Birthday to Me

I turn 45 years old today.  There is always a bit of wistfulness  when another year passes.  I think more and more about being on the lee side of middle age. I also think a lot about the time I’ve wasted on frivolous pursuits and other distractions.  But in the end, I’ve not much to complain about.  I have a good job and family and live in a small town by the sea.  I have more than I thought I would.

Looking down slope from middle age I think about how much I still want to learn and do and the skills I want to master (such as the hand cut dovetail, which I will post about next week).  I have always tended toward a bit of melancholy and can easily find myself dwelling on regret; it really is just who I am.  But I don’t wallow too much because in the end what I feel most acutely with each passing year is a deepening sense of gratitude for everything I have: my community, my friends, my family, my colleagues and students, and my little corner of the world where I get to plant and grow and build and create.

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

Real Life Intrudes

Well I have a lot to write about: a visit to the gardens at Long Hill and Glen Magna Farms, the carver of Salem Samuel McIntire, canning the late summer harvest, building a chuck box for a group of Daisy Scouts, and the recent procurement and restoration of a vintage 1942 Parker 51 fountain pen.  I can’t wait to write about all of these things!  However, I am also up for tenure this fall and am trying to maintain a laser like focus on completing my tenure dossier, due the end of September.  I promise to get beck to growing, building, and restoring after that!