Wednesday 21 June 2023

Back to brick: hardcore lessons from a kitchen makeover, and how I now identify as a tap

This too will pass..!

Goodness, well over a month has gone by since my last post...I have not had a relapse of my trapped nerves, as you might be forgiven for thinking, but rather have been consumed by a major domestic project, namely the renovation of my 30+ year old kitchen. Charitable observers have described it as "tired" - or, when feeling more generous, "vintage", or "quite atmospheric in artificial light" - while I would often apologise for it being "a bit minty". I never cared for the kitchen when I bought the house, but deferred the decision for the longest time for the twin reasons of a lack of funds and the requisite bravery, for work on this scale is hugely disruptive. A friend whom I had helped over the past few years with what you might call "a massive decluttering exercise" very kindly offered to take on the lion's share of the costs, which made the whole thing possible.

Old kitchen after the wallpaper was stripped off

It is funny looking back, as this radical venture started out with "light touch" thoughts of painting the chequerboard-style tiled splashback, wrapping the worktop, and maybe changing the cabinet I engaged the services of my local branch of The Kitchen Facelift Company, who offer a range of such services. However, after they had inspected the insides of my cupboards, it quickly became apparent that these were more than merely "tired" - exhausted, scratched, and on their last rusty hinges, more like - and realistically could not be saved. 

Appliances hogging the work surface

Then in the act of surveying the kitchen generally and poking around inside cupboards, myriad instances of dodgy wiring were uncovered, affecting both the appliances and the lighting. One particular stretch of molten cable (which had been cosying up with a central heating pipe in the joists) was pronounced by the electrician to be an imminent fire risk. All of which meant taking the wall back to brick (as the Amy Winehouse song doesn't quite go), and basically gutting the place. And thus it came about that a tentative plan to refresh the units ended up involving major electrical work as well as a new kitchen...

I was without a kitchen in the end for six weeks - and as things turned out, also without a washing machine for three, which was a further inconvenience. While undoubtedly stressful, this has also been an instructive experience - there's the management of the project itself in terms of choosing and sourcing all the different elements, and the adaptations you have to introduce to many day-to-day tasks. I have learnt lessons, and there will doubtless be more before the job is finally put to bed, and as with my bathroom renovation in 2016, I share some of them here. There is a lot of common ground indeed between the two. For anyone who has already put themselves through this process, they may ring a bell, and/or serve as a timely warning if you are about to embark on a similar venture.

Bonding before plastering

You will forcibly become a morning person

As some of you know, I am a night owl. I am the furthest thing from those A-type high achievers who accomplish a ridiculous amount between 5-9am, including a ton of work, some exercise, a meditation session, and a breakfast of overnight oats and blueberries. Left to my own devices, my wan, rumpled form is rarely vertical much before 9.30am or even later. During the course of the kitchen job, however, I have routinely had to be up and dressed (sometimes even washed!) by as early as 8am, because tradesmen are sadly larks.

Your input will be needed more than you would ever imagine

Because I am retired, I was able to be around as much as the various sets of tradesmen needed me to be, and looking back it was a mercy. There was so much more involved than merely making them drinks. I was often asked for my preference on a range of decisions I didn't even think I had a view on(!), such as where to position cupboard handles and door knobs, which cupboard was to become the integrated bin, how high the cooker hood should be, whether I wanted the wiring behind the dishwasher to be hoiked up a bit off the floor or not, whether the floorboards should go horizontally or vertically, what kind of socket covers I fancied (who knew there was even a choice?), and what material I favoured for the kitchen windowsills and splashback. I also received random and sudden requests to produce a variety of items, such as a "small flat piece of slate", a plastic bowl of specific proportions, a radiator bleed key, an Allen key to fit a small towel rail, and a 5p coin. I did ask the men how they get on if the householder is not there, and they said they would normally ring them up (though that doesn't always work with a more visual issue), whereupon the person may tell them to do what they think is best. "And how does that go?" I inquired. "Well, often it is fine where they genuinely don't mind, but occasionally they see something after it's been done and realise they don't like it that way after all." So just in case something comes up where you might have a preference, be there if you can.

Pop up sawmill on the drive

There will be Steinbeckian levels of dust

Ah, the dust...! Everyone I have ever spoken to who has had kitchen work done mentions the dust, and how much time they spent cleaning it up in between phases of the job, only for the cloud to descend again almost immediately afterwards. Even now my side path looks like the red rocks of Sedona, and does in fact remind me of a happy holiday there. The dust indoors is less welcome, and for weeks on end every single object was coated in a light patina of crud, despite multiple deep cleaning sessions. I spent six hours one day on a single room - the "high risk" dining room adjacent to the kitchen - but I might as well not have bothered, haha. So my advice would also be to surrender to the dust.

Making meals will take an eternity 

All the blog posts I had read before embarking on this project spoke of the importance of setting up a temporary kitchen, preferably well away from dust-landing range (which would have meant upstairs, which I thought might feel too weird). In the end, the utility room served as the sink and draining area for dishes, while the dining room took essential small appliances, cat food Tupperwares and ones of nuts and seeds. For as with rats and kitchen roll, I am never further than 6 feet from a container of nuts, on which I grazed on and off during the day, not least because of the sketchy access to the fridge (which remained in the kitchen, as was). Then all along the landing were bags of utensils and cookware, most of them temporarily redundant, though I did use a glass casserole dish for microwaving vegetables - a first for me! Meanwhile, the front room was rammed with yet more bags of kitchen equipment, plus the ambient food contents of the cupboards, mugs and cutlery, and items still to be installed. Every meal occasion therefore involved darting between different areas of the house to collect all the elements required to make even a cold dish like a salad. I had lots of salads. I would constantly forget where things were, then it would come to me...Oust descaler sachets...I know...under the sofa! (Okay, that wasn't part of a meal as such, but you get my drift.) It became a bit like a memory-based game show. 

Spot the tap...

Lighting is a shot in the dark

I was just about to embark on a ranty lament about the demise of incandescent and halogen bulbs (with their cosier, warmer ambience) when I realised that I had already had a similar rant as far back as my bathroom post (link above), so the problem was already with us back then. I endorse every word of my previous piece on the matter, and if anything, found that the current generation of LED lights for kitchens - whether for downlights or under pelmet lighting - are starker and brighter than ever before. Given how clinical and sterile their so-called "warm white" turned out to be, I never wish to be illuminated by anything calling itself "cool white" or - God forbid - "daylight". There is of course the fallback of squirrel cage bulbs, but they can veer too much the other way and be a bit dim, for all that they create a nice atmosphere and spark joy in themselves. I fear a genuinely warm "warm white" is a lost concept to lighting companies, and am rather missing my 30 year old halogen track lights that are in the skip outside...somewhere. I may have to go on the dark web (no pun intended) in a bid to procure some banned incandescent bulbs of yore. ;)

Research within reason (which this definitely wasn't!)

I find myself reprising yet another theme from the bathroom post, and my obsessive compulsive research disorder has clearly not improved since then, and may even have got worse! For my approach on this - and every - home improvement project is to think I have to scour the entire Internet and assess the merits of every fixture and fitting for sale anywhere in the world before making my choice, when in fact I only have to look until I find one that I like that isn't too expensive and has the correct measurements for where it is meant to go. It is a bit like thinking you have to assess the merits of every man in the world before deciding to go out with them (assuming they are willing), when you just have to get along with the one you happen to meet. So by the same token, the first handle / knob / hob / 1.5 bowl sink I saw and liked would probably have done just as well. And sometimes I did return to exactly that, because it was always there in the back of my mind as something I liked "well enough" from the off. A friend wisely told me that once I had settled on a particular item, the other possibilities would simply fall away, and I wouldn't give them a moment's thought again...and so it has proved:

That all said, shopping for items - even the humblest things - is a lot more complicated these days. There is far more choice and there are far more parameters to consider. Case in point...shelves made from scaffolding boards, which I am starting to look into. There is not just thickness and width and length and different colours of wood, but whether you want them hand sanded or machine sanded, oiled or unoiled, and with fixings that are either floating, propped or hanging(!). 

Never far from a tap image on my phone either

Hold out for what you want (assuming it exists!)

Another heading from my bathroom post...I stand by this sentiment still, for even though it may involve ludicrous amounts of research to find the obscure ideal thing you are after, you will feel it was worth the effort, and in a vanishingly small number of cases that effort is actually warranted! For example, I hankered after a tap which would be period in style, dual lever, not chrome (I fancied a change) and not have a cruciform part (the horizontal bit that looks like a straight croissant on which the levers sit) which overhangs the sink, but rather which lines up with the dimensions of the half sink. That meant a maximum width of 150mm, but almost all period-style dual lever taps are about 180mm wide, though it took weeks of looking to establish that fact, and two painstakingly packaged and returned taps. This is not a measurement that is typically included in a technical diagram online, and even when I rang up various manufacturers to ask the question, they often didn't know, and had to scurry to the warehouse to find a sample and measure it. But I got there in the end, and it felt like a real coup, as well as a market opportunity for the makers of taps - compact traditional models for small sinks. This one happens to be called "Belfast" (although the sink isn't that big, hence my dimensional conundrum). Then somewhere along the way as I was returning the reject taps I managed to write the word "Tap" in the customer name line, and Google has taken this and run with it, so that when I buy anything online now and use the address autofill facility, my name comes up as "Tap Musson". ;)

The winner!

You may not dare to use the new kitchen

I wasn't expecting this last phenomenon, though I do recognise it with birthday presents, which I often set aside and can't bring myself to use until long after I was given them. So it proved with the kitchen, which has had a working sink since 5th June, however it was only the other day that I stopped washing up in the utility. Maybe this is partly to do with force of habit - even an uncomfortable and awkward habit - a bit like the kitchen amenity equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. I did christen the hob last Wednesday, mind, by steaming broccoli. I sense it may take me some weeks to work up to anything that spits, not least as I have yet to acquire a splashback. It may not even be legal to cook a stir fry with the current set up. ;) Meanwhile, the kettle, toaster and liquidiser are all still in the dining room, on the flimsy premise that they don't go with the kitchen now, while the microwave has been banished to the utility. So I am still operating in three rooms, haha, and it may be a while before I fully embrace the new kitchen I feel very fortunate to have acquired.

Truffle is happy to have a room back

Obligatory bowl featuring a single variety of fruit. One day I may even bake a cake! 

Appliances have yet to colonise the worktop

Finally, a big shout out to Paul and Dave of The Kitchen Facelift Company in Stoke-on-Trent, (which in my own case should perhaps be renamed: "The Kitchen Major Surgery Company"), who tackled every challenge that arose with unflappable calm and good humour - and also to Lorraine, Paul's wife, who metaphorically held my hand for the best part of a year since I first had the idea to do something to the kitchen, and who helped me through my worst episodes of option anxiety. I agree wholeheartedly with all their reviews in this link - not least the fact that Paul and Dave run on tea and biscuits, and that these are "necessary" - and I will be adding my own soon.

NB Perfume-themed posts will return! 



Iain Webb-Wilson said...

Hot or Cold?……Congrats on surviving the Great Kitchen Renewal Episode. You, and Truffle, clearly deserve an accolade for mental stability under great stress, and your kitchen men should be awarded the VM Cross for extreme bravery under fire.
Now it’s time to get that outlying equipment back to the front….

Vanessa said...

Hi Iain,

Thanks for dropping in! In my new guise as a tap, I am mostly running hot (and bothered), I'd say...and I hear you on the VM Cross idea. I did ask one of the men if I had been a nightmare to work for, and he said not at all. The biscuits may have been picking up the slack...;)

And yes, it was a tough couple of months, especially when the washing machine packed up on Day 1, and it turned out to have been hardwired, so the delivery men of the new one couldn't take the old one away or plumb the new one in, dashing my hopes of doing a load of laundry at home at last. Then the kitchen equipment diaspora constituted a significant trip hazard, on top of the fire hazard of my wiring to which I had been alerted. My consumer unit (or fuse box as I would call it) was also condemned early on, and the electrician pointed out that had there been a fire, my insurance company could have wriggled out of honouring a claim. On the plus side, the manager at one of the three electrical wholesalers I bought bits and pieces from - one of whom referred to me as "the woman with the small kitchen" - complimented me on my knowledge of Kelvin and lumen values.

But a major takeaway from this is that it is easier to choose stuff when there are two of you, as you can whittle down options at a much faster rate!

Portia said...

Hey there Tap,
Loved reading this.
Yeah, we have done renos and my only real rule now is that they must be done before we move in or we need to stay somewhere else while they happen.
Looks like it's turned out beautifully Vanessa, congratulations.
Portia x

Vanessa said...

Thanks, Portia, and I know you know about such things, whereas I have only done bathrooms before. It was a bit like living out of a suitcase crossed with a war zone, but I have pretty much broken the back of it now. PS Love being called Tap!

Anonymous said...

Portia got in before me - I love your new name, Tap!

Your kitchen is sooooo pretty! I understand completely the fear of spoiling its pristineness as I still have items I can't bring myself to wear/use just because they are new. But a whole room is a bit different, so I am sure you will get used to it soon.

Oh, I have spent hours searching for and buying old fashioned light bulbs, but have given up as the only ones you can get now are rubbish and possibly even dangerous as they sometimes explode dramatically. I quite like the Philips warm bulbs.

Congratulations on all your hard work. It's beautiful and worth it.


Vanessa said...

Hi Jillie,

Glad you share my reluctance to spoil the pristineness of things, and you are right that it is hard to avoid using a whole room. Though people do have front rooms they rarely go into, that are kept "for best". Mine is a bit like that in fact, though I do sit there sometimes.

I did hear that the classic kind of light bulbs are no longer safe. Wouldn't mind more info on the Philips warm bulbs, as I am naturally suspicious of anything that purports to be warm. I must check my bulb collection in fact - I have a good dozen that I find too glary as the main overhead light source. I keep buying and being disappointed by these supposed "warm white" varieties, and have them in every kind of fitting. ;)

Tatiana said...

I love the cabinetry you've chosen! Your kitchen is absolutely lovely now. Do not be afraid of using it. Will you be getting a new splashback soon? (In the U.S. we refer to them as backsplashes.)
I don't think I could tolerate living through a remodel. We had a hidden plumbing leak which entailed opening up the upstairs hall floor and the wall on the ground floor below. The leak has been repaired we are just waiting for an estimate from the mold remediation company and insurance approval before we can repair the walls and floors. I told my husband if the work is going to extensive I want to find a temporary place to live while the work is done.

Vanessa said...

Hi Tatiana,

Nice to hear from you! I have started to use the kitchen more since I wrote this post...and I have plinths now, which finish off the cabinets at the bottom. I will be getting a backsplash, but only for the bit behind the cooker - the fashion seems to be to make do with just an upstand elsewhere and try not to splash. ;)

Sorry to hear of your plumbing leak - it just goes to show how much damage those little things can end up causing. I hope the remedial work is not too disruptive. I can quite understand people wanting to live elsewhere during major repairs or a renovation.

Anonymous said...

Hi V,
A lot of work and stress but the kitchen is completely transformed. I love it.

The list of options you might be called on to make a decision left me with second hand anxiety. I moved into a flat I felt would need minimal work. Even so there has been a far amount of plumbing which needed upgrading. I recently had to have a new kitchen tap and just asked the plumbers to pick one for me. So well done for researching all the taps available and holding out for the one you wanted. It looks great.

Hope you're now fully making the most of 'the space' as they say these days.

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

I still haven't accepted fully that the kitchen is in my continues to have a bit of an alien quality, in a good way.

I am impressed at your giving the decision on the tap to the plumbers - perhaps they would instinctively match the old one? I have matched like with like before, but never been in the position of starting from scratch, albeit with the technical constraint that it had to be a monobloc mixer kind. I could probably go on Mastermind with taps as my special subject, I have looked at so many now. I may well recognise the tap you end up with!

They do say "the space" these days, don't they? ;) I think I am starting to use and fill it, slowly.